“Taylor?” said the confused voice on the other end of the line, unsure and trying not to be impolite. The connection was rough, distorted with static.
“No, ma’am. Caleb. My name is Caleb.”
“Oh! Caleb, like from the Bible.”
There was a pause, a moment of hesitation before the reply. “Er, yes, ma’am. What can I help you with today?”
“Well, it’s my laptop. It’s been running real slow lately and I can barely use it.”
“Really slow…have you tried restarting your computer?”
“Um, hold on, let me do that really quick.”
Caleb Bremer pushed his swivel chair away from the desk as the call seemed to stretch on into infinity. His eyes drifted warily to the clock on his screen, ticking away seconds against him as his Handle Time increased, while simultaneously counting away the moments until his shift would finally be over. His fingers played idly over the small plastic figurine he held in his hand, tracing his fingernail over the contours and grooves in the cheap material.
“It’s still doing the thing,” the ever-more exasperated caller reported. “It’s still taking forever to start up. I think I need more gigabytes.”
“Do you have an anti-virus installed?” Caleb said as he longingly watched coworkers in the adjacent cubicles putting down their headsets and shutting down their computers.
“I think so. I think I have the MacAfee thing, but it keeps popping up a message, saying it’s expired or something,” the voice said, trailing off as if they had suddenly realized this might be related to their predicament.
Caleb suddenly straightened up in his chair, blinking as he realized he finally had his exit. “Okay, ma’am? What you need to do is perform a full virus scan, since you might have malicious software that’s causing your computer to slow down. In order to do that, you need to make sure you’re up to date on your current virus definitions, which is provided as a subscription service from MacAfee.”
“Wait, so you mean I have to pay for this? I thought it came with my computer.” There was no mistaking the quiet frustration in her voice, and Caleb knew he had to be diplomatic.
“It does, yes. But I’m showing here you purchased your system new from our online store in December of 2009. Our computers come with a one year free subscription to MacAfee Internet Security, but after that the price is $34.99 per year to keep the subscription up to date.”
“Look, it never said anything about this on your website. I really don’t think this is good business. I don’t like it,” the caller said with an edge to her voice.
Caleb’s mind was racing, frantically trying to think of a good way to position this point before the call went completely down in flames.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry if there was a misunderstanding—“
“No, I’m not misunderstanding anything. The only thing I understand right now is that your company wants to keep nickel-and-diming me after I spent over a thousand dollars on one of their products!”
Caleb swallowed and replied, “But honestly, we—“
But it was too late. He heard the click on the other end of the line, and knew the call was over. Sighing, Caleb logged out of his computer and put on his coat, taking a moment to look over the figurine before he slipped it into his pocket. He had carried the little plastic pony for nearly three months; the toy accompanied him wherever he went. What was once Rainbow Dash was now unrecognizable. He had handled the toy so much that the plastic had worn to an almost uniform white color, save for a patch of blue here and there.
Caleb ducked his head against the frigid air and pushed the glass doors open to reluctantly greet the biting cold outside. Sucking in a sharp breath, he fumbled with his gloves to put them on before the sharp winter wind could numb his fingers. As dressed as he was against the evening snow that swirled around him, Caleb began trudging toward the bus stop.
He cursed the name Nissan with every powdery step he took. For want of a head gasket, he was stuck in the snow, walking half a mile after work. He felt he would give anything, just to have his car working again. With a pang, he realized that wouldn’t be for some time, being that Christmas bonuses would not be forthcoming this year. When he finally reached the stop, he already felt winded and chilled. He continued to ruminate over his predicament when he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. Taking it out, he saw that he had a new message:
PwnyUp1986: hey, who do you think would win in a fight: Opalescence or Winona?
PwnyUp1986: nm just a thing going on ponychan right now – Opal vs Winona
Caleb tried not to take his impatience out on his friend, simply replying:
HaylebTurnip: gg, bus is coming
And indeed it was. Slowly, with a sharp hiss from its brakes, the bus came to a halt in front of Caleb, who quickly mounted the steps and found a seat. Instead of indulging himself with further idle conversation, he chose instead to lay back in his seat and close his eyes. Finally able to enjoy a moment of independent thought, he pondered how he would spend his two days off when he got back to his tiny apartment. It was a Saturday night, hopefully late enough in the day to catch the latest episode of the show online. It was how he always kicked off his weekends, which were shorter now, owing to this arduous commute.
The bus ride took nearly an hour, and Caleb considered putting on his headphones and listening to music but changed his mind after he recalled how he nearly missed his stop almost two days in a row. Taking the bus was a new experience for him, and while he was grateful he didn’t have to deal with the rush hour traffic, his tripled commute time certainly didn’t make it worth it. He silently crunched the numbers over and over in his head—just $450, if he could just set aside $450 this month, he’d be able to get his car back on the road. He might have to eat ramen for a few weeks, he thought grimly. Does WinCo still carry the spicy lime shrimp ones? he wondered.
The bus slowly came to a halt, braking cautiously so as not to slide on the icy pavement. The driver opened the doors and Caleb could immediately feel the windy chill biting at his face as he got up to leave. He shouldered his pack and stepped out into the chilly darkness, the bus rumbling on away from him. He padded down the snowy sidewalk, lost in thought as he quickly pulled his gloves and scarf on.
It was going to be like this for the next several days, working straight through Christmas and New Year’s. He had volunteered for the overtime and holiday pay because he knew he desperately needed it. His family had invited him to stay, of course, but without a car, the 120 miles to see them seemed like the remotest of possibilities at the moment. He would spend this Christmas—much like the last—alone and on the phone.
“So if I do 47 hours this week, with seven hours of overtime, that’s a total of $400, minus $125 for heating…”
He continued to do the math in his head, to see just how much blood he could squeeze out of the turnip that was his meager paycheck. Caleb hardly noticed the approaching headlights behind him, casting harsh shadows that swept erratically over the road and sidewalk.
“…minus another seventy for my cellphone, and another thirty-five for Everfree Northwest…”
The sound of tires sliding awkwardly upon the slushy pavement caused Caleb to suddenly stop walking. He turned around slowly, expecting to see someone stuck in the ever-deepening snow.
The impact was stunning, knocking the breath and rational thought from him. He felt a searing pain in his head and he was being pushed, pushed, father and farther as he slid with the car down the wooded embankment. For a few frustrating, terrifying moments he clung to the front of the car as it careened heedlessly into the darkness. His nose was inches from the corroded hood ornament of the old car, and he could smell the sharp tang of gasoline and motor oil behind the radiator.
Caleb felt his grip slipping after a few seconds before he was forced to let go as his foot caught a rock. Sliding sideways, he was helpless as his arm slid under the front tire of the car. He felt the cold snow chain tear at his skin as the wheel passed over him, pinning him to the ground for a few moments before he was sent tumbling down into the ravine, away from the car.
He thought he might never stop falling, too weak to stop the momentum of his body as he tripped and rolled down the hill. Finally, with a dull pain in his back, he came to a stop in an icy stream, the chill soaking first through his jacket, then his sweatshirt beneath. He closed his eyes for a moment, sucking in a sharp breath, living for this moment only in the pain. Caleb was afraid to move, not because he was afraid he might further harm himself, but rather that he was afraid he couldn’t move at all.
It was only when the frigid water started biting through his t-shirt did he shakily move an arm to steady himself, to prepare himself for movement. His other arm felt numb, cumbersome, and stung in every place when he tried to move it. Panicking as he felt the needle-like agony of frostbite start to tease at his back, and shivering uncontrollably, Caleb forced himself to sit up. The pain in his head began to explode like angry fireworks in front of his eyes. He gasped and nearly considered lying back down in the cold water, but instead half crawled, half rolled himself out of the stream, panting as he cradled his forehead in his hand.
“Help…” he called out. Though instead of projecting into the darkness, his plea came as a hoarse whisper. Taking a deep breath, Caleb shakily got to his feet. As soon as he put weight on his left ankle, he knew he had sprained it—or worse. Between his head, his arm, his back, and his ankle, the pain was bringing hot tears to his numb cheeks and his mind was swimming in a frozen haze of nausea. Resisting the urge to retch, Caleb stumbled slowly into the dark woods.
“Hey…!” he called out once more, this time managing a conversational volume.
“Hello?!” Definitely approaching his outside voice.
“Can anyone hear me?” Caleb finally managed to yell, wincing as the ache throbbed in his head with his heartbeat.
There was no reply. Caleb thought about the car and wondered if the driver was faring any better than he. He squinted into the moonlit darkness, expecting to see the car, or possibly headlights in the snow, but instead he saw nothing but woods in all directions. He looked up the embankment he had come down, but couldn’t see past the thick brush, now dusted with white snow. He reached for his cellphone, but found it was gone from his pocket, only to be replaced with a few shards of broken glass. Fighting panic, Caleb stumbled further into the woods, hoping to find a house or a road. He knew that if he sat down, he might never get up again.
Caleb shivered as the wind whipped across his soaked back while he trudged through the snow. It felt as if he had walked miles and had traveled for hours when he knew in fact it had just been a couple of minutes. Every step hurt and exhausted him as he forced himself onward. After what seemed like another eternity of stumbling through the snowy underbrush, he came upon a wide, muddy path that looked like an old service road. To his dismay, it stretched onward further into the woods.
“Hello!?” he called out. Again, there was no reply, save for some unsettling bird calls that answered from deep within the forest. Against his better judgment, Caleb set off down the darkened path. The sharp pains of his ankle were now settled into a dull, tiring ache that didn’t seem to matter whether he was stepping on it or not. He couldn’t help but notice the character of the trees around him. No longer the conifers and high pine trees that he had fallen through earlier, these trees were shorter and thicker—like old willows—and draped with low-hanging Spanish moss. He stopped for a moment, daring to take a break and catch his breath once more.
To him, there was something oddly familiar about this place, though Caleb was not ready to admit it. The way the wide path wound through the dense trees, the way vines seemed to form thickets at the bases of the trunks, the way the moonlight seemed to feebly penetrate the darkened canopy—it was like nothing he had ever seen before. And yet, he felt as if he should know this place well. And in the back of his mind, that vague sliver of recognition came with a call for caution.
It was then that Caleb realized he was sweating from exertion. He knew he shouldn’t take his jacket off, but he suddenly felt stifled and uncomfortable. He had read that this was a sign of advanced hypothermia, and knew he’d be better served by keeping his clothes on, wet as they were. But as he considered this, he noticed another peculiarity: he could no longer see his breath in front of his face. The soul-numbing, icy wind had died down to a cool breeze, and the snow had since turned into a muddy slush by his feet.
Caleb frowned, more confused now than panicked, and slowly began to remove his waterlogged coat. He winced as he peeled it off of his battered arm, expecting to find blood joining the muddy water in staining his clothing, but instead finding streaks of angry red welts ringing his bicep. He moved his fingers experimentally, finding that—though cold—he still had feeling in them. He took a few deep breaths before slinging his wet coat over his back and continuing down the path.
The purple sky began to brighten slowly as Caleb made his way through the forest and he felt a mild sense of vindication, thinking he must have been walking for hours to be seeing daylight already. The air was warm now, humid and smelling slightly of peat. He had no idea where he was, but in his exhaustion, he was thankful only that the cold had abated and that he was still standing.
After several more minutes Caleb passed a set of muddy hoof prints in the path and glanced around, hoping to see an equestrian trailhead to give him some idea as to where he was but the horseshoe-shaped impressions only disappeared into the forest in the opposite direction. He frowned, and continued forward as the dawn began to peek over the hills in the distance.
He thought of what he would do when he found a phone, who he could call. Of course he would call 911, try and get to a hospital. But then he hesitated. Being uninsured, a trip to the emergency room, or even urgent care, could destroy him. If he could still move, and still speak, he could still work, though he might just take a day or two off to recover. Maybe, he thought, maybe nothing is broken. Did I just walk it off? he silently hoped.
Distracted again by his own thoughts, he didn’t notice at first that the path had led to an opening in the trees and that he had come to a quiet meadow, dotted with small, rolling hills that framed the road in dim early morning light. As he came over one such hill, he saw the sun rising in the distance ahead. Caleb knew he must be facing east, but as he tried to get his bearings he suddenly realized that most of the clouds were gone.
The blizzard seemed like a distant dream as the rapidly-rising sun laid before Caleb a feast for the eyes, blanketed in brilliant golden light. Fingers of sunshine reached to illuminate every rock, every blade of grass, and every flower in this quiet, pastoral landscape. The heat from the morning sun seemed to radiate through every fiber of his being as he momentarily forgot the pain, the panic, and the pressure to reach civilization. It didn’t matter as long as he could just experience this beautiful, divine sunrise.
As his eyes adjusted to the bright light, Caleb noticed to his relief that he was near what looked to be a small town. With its exaggerated features and closely-clustered, European-inspired houses he at first assumed he had stumbled into another tacky development of new tract homes. But as he saw the slowly turning windmills, and heard a rooster crow in the distance he knew this was no suburban oasis of McMansions. No, he knew where he was. He just didn’t know if he should believe it.
Burning with incredulous curiosity, he set off down the path with renewed energy, limping slightly as he squinted toward the village, his eyes hungering to drink in more of the familiar surroundings. The bridge, the river, the grand meeting carousel—it was all there. All of it. Caleb saw the pale yellow line of thatched roofs over the next hill, a few with smoke lazily wafting up from their chimneys. He paused, wondering if this could be possible.
He bent down, running his fingers over the dew-covered grass and feeling the soft, loamy soil under his fingers. There was no permafrost, no sign winter was there. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. The air was crisp, clean, and pure. Where he would have expected to scent car exhaust or the emissions from the factory near where the bus had let him off he smelled only fresh grass and the hint of wood fires from the nearby cottages.
With his mind racing, Caleb spotted a nearby patch of boulders, jutting out from the grass, and decided to have a seat. He had to sit; if there was anything he had to sit down for and just let it soak in it was this. He looked down at his muddy tennis shoes, turning his ankle gingerly in the grass. The pain was starting to ebb, but he still felt sore. He touched his forehead and was shocked when his hand came away with a smear of slowly-drying blood. Shaking himself, he gazed out at the village near the horizon once more.
“I must have hit my head harder than I thought,” Caleb muttered softly.
In response, he heard a soft, feminine gasp from behind the rock. Caleb started, about to get up from his seat when the source of the noise tentatively rounded the corner and stepped around the rocks. Standing not six feet away was a small horse—a pony, to be specific. She—and to Caleb there was no mistaking her gender—stood shorter than most ponies or horses might. Had he been standing, the equine’s ears would have barely reached his chin. She had an earthy, grassy odor about her, one that he knew well from having visited his cousin’s farm in Vermont where they had kept horses. Her long face framed light green eyes, one of which was occluded by her wild silver mane. The pony was pure white, and as Caleb’s eyes scanned toward her flank, he saw that there was nothing there.
Caleb blinked, momentarily distracted by this absence when the inevitable happened.
“Um, are you alright…?” The voice was soft, concerned, and more than just a little fearful. But all Caleb could think about was that the voice had come from this pony’s mouth, and it had spoken to him. And Caleb had no question as to where he was.
For the next few moments, Caleb could only stare into those blue eyes while his mind worked slowly, numbly, like each frantic thought was mired in thick syrup. He moved his lips a few times before the broken sounds came out.
“You’re hurt…!” the white earth pony gasped, her eyes drifting to the blood on his face. Caleb knew he must have looked a sight—the bloodied gash on his forehead, soaking into his black hair and running down his unshaven face, with his clothes torn and frayed and covered in mud. His green eyes soon strayed away from the pony, darting back and forth at the village in the distance behind her. Each time he took it in, it was as if he was seeing it for the first time. But it was all too soon a concerned hoof was waved rapidly back and forth in front of his face.
“Hey. What’s your name?” she persisted.
“Caleb. My name is Caleb,” he said. Getting up suddenly, and ignoring the pain in his head, he stumbled forward a little, back toward the path.
“Easy now!” the pony said.
“This…this is Equestria,” Caleb murmured softly.
“Er, yes. Yes it is. Oh dear,” the pony nickered. “I don’t mean to be rude, but ah, what exactly are you?”
Caleb didn’t respond at first. He simply stood there for another moment, not wanting to acknowledge what had happened to him. He just wanted to see this place, to hear it, to experience it. Caleb’s eyes slowly returned to the white pony once more and he swallowed.
“I’m a human, a human being,” he said cautiously, as if he needed to remind himself of this fact.
“You came out of the Everfree Forest?” the pony asked, sounding even more concerned. Caleb cast a glance back down the path toward the dark opening in the trees.
“Um, yeah, I guess I did,” Caleb said. He sounded dazed and disoriented, which he was, in all fairness.
“You don’t look so good,” the pony said frankly. “You humans don’t have doctors by any chance, do you?”
Caleb said nothing, distracted once more by his surroundings. His headache was slowly fading, but the still throbbing soreness in his body was a frustrating distraction from his reverie.
Snorting with slight impatience, the white equine slowly moved to Caleb’s side. At first Caleb backed away, suddenly wary of the large animal. But she was having none of it.
“Come on now, human. Up we go.” She spoke warily, as if she was doing this against her better judgment.
“Hey! I—“ But the mare’s head was already tucking under his bad arm, gingerly draping it over her neck to support Caleb as she gently began to lead him down the path toward the village. He stumbled along with the white pony for a few minutes in awkward silence, feeling the fine, brushed coat under his bruised hand, and keeping his feet out of the way from her metal-shod hooves.
As they moved farther away from the forest, his eyes caught sight of a nearby house, nestled among the trees. He almost didn’t see it at first, as its sod roof was covered in thick greenery, with small birdhouses jutting out at odd angles here and there. The yard was given over to various farm animals—ducks, geese, chickens, even a goat or two. Birds of all colors chirped quietly around the home, darting in and out of their houses and alcoves. Already, the light was on in the window and smoke was drifting from the jaunty chimney. And with a sudden rush of excitement Caleb realized he knew who had turned on the light, and who had kindled the fire.
He turned around, wanting to keep looking at the quiet little house, but the white pony led him onward. As he gazed dumbly behind him, he saw that where he had initially thought the white pony’s flank to be bare there was indeed a marking. Squinting briefly, he could just make out an intricate floral pattern in a white fabric frill. The color of the fabric was just barely discernable from the mare’s surrounding snow-white coat, making the cutie mark quite easy to miss.
It was then Caleb felt the terrain under his feet turn from sandy dirt into rough-hewn wooden planks that resonated with each careful step he and the pony took as they crossed the bridge toward the town. He could see the settlement so much better now. The lampposts still glowed with faint gaslight, their flickering flame scorching the plate glass framed by an ornate wrought iron frame. The mock-Tudor houses with their overhanging upper stories cloaked the main thoroughfare in a dim shade in the early morning light.
“Are you holding up alright?” the pony asked with concern. “Do you need me to slow down?”
But Caleb didn’t answer. His gaze was drifting skyward as he heard a rushing of air far above his head. Some of the remaining clouds that had remained from the evening chill were moving seemingly on their own accord, away from the town. And as the clouds parted to let in more light upon the village, he saw the slowly beating wings of the brown pegasus, silhouetted momentarily against the brilliant sun before the winged horse streaked away toward the next patch of clouds.
“Oh, my God,” Caleb softly whispered. He had stopped walking, staring upward. He was awestruck, his breath was caught in his throat. Now another flying equine joined the first, and then another, and another.
The white pony’s eyes followed Caleb’s toward the sky, watching the beginnings of tears welling up in the man’s eyes. She tried to hide her puzzlement as she quietly remarked, “They told us it was going to be a sunny day, what with the Summer Sun Celebration the day after tomorrow.”
Caleb blinked, swallowing a lump in his throat and licking his dry lips as his eyes drifted back to meet the pony’s.
“It’s summer?” he asked incredulously.
“Of course it is!” she exclaimed with a slight giggle. “Why do you think it’s so warm this morning?”
“I hadn’t realized…”
“Oh dear me, I’m sorry, Caleb. I didn’t mean to laugh, I ah, yes. We should um, we should keep going,” she said, nudging him on once more. A slight tinge of pink had invaded her ears, the pony flicking them in embarrassment.
They were in town now, and Caleb could feel the country cottages and shops that lined the street looming over him as if silently judging his condition and questioning his presence in this place. He was suddenly afraid, hesitant, like he was suddenly nine years old and wasn’t sure if it was okay to be walking through his grandfather’s study, the one where you weren’t allowed to touch anything. Anything. Familiar as this place was—perhaps more familiar than the study—Caleb had never felt so much like a stranger in his life.
And as he shuffled unsteadily against the white pony, through the center of town, those few who were awake and about so early stopped what they were doing to stare at the bedraggled human who strode into their idyllic midst. All around him, Caleb saw narrow, equine faces with wide, frightened eyes upon him. Gasps and murmurs flitted back and forth between the half dozen of them like angry insects, growing louder and more coherent as he passed them.
“Look at him…!”
“What is he?”
“Oh my gosh, it’s hurt.”
His escort ignored them in this awkward moment, soldiering on toward their destination. Grateful to not return the awkward gazes from the ponies around him, Caleb saw the hoof-carved sign that marked a low-slung, single-story building clearly spelling out the words PONYVILLE URGENT CARE. A small pit formed in his stomach as the white pony pushed open the door in front of him, triggering a small bell set above the door. Caleb hated doctors—one of the reasons he had been so apprehensive about the idea of visiting the emergency room, even after been run down by a car. To him, the thought of visiting a human doctor was miserable enough; to be treated by an equine made him all the more nervous.
There was a small reception area that had a few broad stools and chairs—large enough for pony flanks—which were currently unoccupied. Immediately, the white pony nudged Caleb to sit in one of them. He felt suddenly tired, cradling his face in his hands as if to shield himself from what he was sure was a delusion gone too far. He felt the congealed blood under his fingers and pondered why he would ever fantasize about the throbbing pain in his head, or the enormous, bleeding goose egg that was causing it.
Hazarding a quick look up, Caleb saw that the white pony was conferring with another that, like his escort, also bore a white coat. She wore a starched nurse’s bonnet, with her light pink mane pulled back into a loose bun. The nurse pony was casting increasingly incredulous stares in his direction. Caleb could only stare blankly back at her, not sure whether he should smile reassuringly, or try to look even more miserable than he already was. He could only catch a few, scattered fragments of their conversation.
“…not a pony…maybe veterinarian…Fluttershy…”
Caleb’s eyes immediately darted toward the white equines.
Caleb sighed and realized he didn’t have the energy to eavesdrop. He just wished he could disappear at this moment, to become invisible. But it wasn’t long before the nurse nervously walked up to him and flashed a winning smile.
“Um, hello there. Caleb is it?”
Caleb swallowed. “Yeah.”
“I’m Nurse Redheart. Lily here tells me you’re from the Everfree Forest,” she said amiably, though her eyes panned repeatedly to the wound on his forehead and the welts on his arm.
Lily. He momentarily looked to the white pony who had brought him in. So her name was Lily. He searched his brain, picking it for fragments of recognition from the various websites and lists. Though he knew of several ponies called Lily, this one was apparently not among them.
“I’m not from there,” Caleb said. “I just…I mean, I got lost.”
Redheart looked skeptically at the stammering human and simply gave a sympathetic nod. “It happens,” she said. “Everfree isn’t exactly safe you know.”
“Yeah, I’m kind of getting that impression.”
Redheart nodded to Caleb and held out a hoof, offering to help him out of his seat. “Why don’t you let me take a look at those cuts. We’ll get you fixed up in no time.”
Caleb took the nurse’s hoof and slowly got to his feet, realizing it was easier this time than it was the previous two. He was led slowly through a broad door, with Lily following close behind him, to a doctor’s exam room, though with slightly modified fixtures to make it easier for quadrupeds to use. He sat on the low exam table and Redheart immediately set to work.
Caleb raised his eyes to the silver-maned pony who had brought him in. “Your name’s Lily?” he asked.
“Yes, Lily Lace, or just Lily for short. It’s what all my friends call me anyway.”
Caleb winced as Nurse Redheart began to dab antiseptic at the cut on his head. Iodine! Did these ponies have to be so damned old fashioned?!
“Ooof, I know. Just hold still for me, this is a pretty deep cut,” Redheart nickered.
Caleb didn’t respond to her, wanting to think of anything but the throbbing pain the tincture was reigniting. “Lily Lace. I guess that explains the cutie mark,” he said to Lily.
She smiled a bit, nodding back to it. “I guess it does. I tat and knit lace for my little shop down the street, Frill ‘er Up; I’ve been doing it ever since I was a filly.”
To Caleb, there was no mistaking the pride in the Earth Pony’s voice. He hissed again as Redheart gave his wound one last, aggressive swab with the iodine-soaked gauze.
“Don’t worry about it,” Caleb said. Another thing he noticed through this ordeal was how deceptively strong these ponies were. Though shorter than he and quite feminine, these were very powerful creatures, and he felt as if Redheart might have been using a bit more force than she should have. The nurse was now on to his arm, palpating the road-rashed surface gently to feel for broken bones. She proceeded to clean here as well and Caleb once more felt the sting of the antiseptic on his skin.
“You make lace stuff, like for dresses?” Caleb huffed as he held out his arm for Redheart. “Rarity must love you.”
She chuckled quietly and gave a modest grin, “Oh, well I’d like to think she appreciates my w—“ But then she stared straight at Caleb, having almost missed the name drop.
“You know Rarity?” Redheart asked, looking puzzled, though hopeful.
Damn, Caleb thought.
“Well I mean, I know of her,” he said evasively. “Pretty awesome dressmaker, from what I hear.”
“Awesome…yeah,” Lily said. She looked even more confused than Redheart, who had affixed a bandage to Caleb’s head and was now leaning low to look at his ankle. Caleb felt the neatly-trimmed hooves gingerly peel down his muddy sock.
“I have to admit, I’ve never seen a…what was it kind of creature you were again?” Redheart asked with a guilty sigh.
“I’m a human. I don’t know if we’re really that common in Equestria,” he offered.
“Well, you’re a fair bit less intimidating than most of the creatures we’ve seen come out of the Everfree Forest. Though I’d be lying if I said I knew how to treat you as well as a pony,” the nurse said. She was feeling the bones on Caleb’s ankle; he let out a low grunt of pain at certain spots, but she didn’t seem to be alarmed.
“Ouch. Well, I guess that’s good at least. I’m certainly no Ursa Major.”
“Definitely easier to manage,” Lily chuckled. “But in all seriousness, Caleb, Nurse Redheart is right. The Everfree Forest isn’t safe. For one thing, the weather happens all on its own in there.”
“And let’s not forget the animals,” Redheart clucked, nodding to Lily as she managed to untie Caleb’s sneaker, exposing his foot now. He felt cold once more, uneasy as those heavy hooves cradled his painful, swollen ankle.
“Oh, yeah! And the animals completely care for themselves. Downright weird if you ask me,” Lily added.
“Yeah, weird.” Caleb said.
“Well, it looks like nothing’s broken—I mean, at least as far as I can tell. Aside from these cuts and bruises, you seem to be a very healthy, er, human.” Redheart said as she began wrapping a cloth bandage tightly around his bruised flesh.
“That’s good to hear. It still hurts, though.”
“Well even if you didn’t break it, you certainly sprained it something fierce.” Redheart got onto all four feet once more and let out a sigh. Caleb felt the equine’s warm breath flutter his dirty t-shirt as he gingerly began to slip off the exam table. He was tentatively testing his weight on his ankle once more. Lily was immediately by his side to support him, though he seemed to be standing well enough on his own by now.
“I want you to take it easy for a few days,” Redheart continued. “You’re obviously not from around here. Are you going to be staying in Ponyville for a while? I’d like to be able to keep an eye on you at the very least.”
Caleb blinked, not immediately knowing how to answer that question. Lily seemed caught in the awkward moment as well, like a child who had brought home some sort of creature she wasn’t sure how to house.
“Well, I would let him stay with me, but I don’t really have the room. Besides, my shop is a mess right now,” Lily finally said.
“Well, I’m sure somepony has a spot for him,” Redheart said.
“It’s okay, really. I mean, I don’t want to put anybody out,” Caleb said nervously.
“No, no. Nurse Redheart’s right, we can’t just send you back into the forest. No, I think I know just the pony who could take you in,” she said with a smile.
At that moment a small bell rang in the main waiting room and Redheart nodded curtly toward Lily.
“I’ve got another patient. I’ll leave him in your hooves, though bring him back here immediately if there’s any problems whatsoever. I’ll make sure the doctor knows about his case ahead of time.”
“I promise he’ll be back here in no time if something happens. I’ll make sure everypony knows to keep an eye on him,” Lily said.
It was obvious to Caleb that Redheart had done all she could to help him. He just hoped that her giving him a relatively clean bill of health was the correct diagnosis. He carefully put his shoes on again, not bothering to lace the one slipped over his bandage. As he turned to shuffle toward the door, Redheart nickered, “Oh, ah, Caleb? What exactly happened to you in there?”
Both she and Lily gazed expectantly at Caleb, hoping for an answer.
“I don’t know,” Caleb said quietly. “I think I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Redheart frowned, obviously hoping for a better answer, but simply nodded and turned her attention toward tidying up the exam room. Caleb braced himself to walk back out into the waiting room, not wanting to be a spectacle once more. The surprised gasps from the two mares he passed on his way to the outside door made him inwardly cringe, his face flushed as he tried to hobble as quickly as he could back out onto the main street.
The morning bustle had finally come to Ponyville, and some of the food vendors had already set up their carts. What had been half a dozen ponies before was now more than twenty, going about their day as the sun began to rise higher in the sky. Caleb could already feel the gentle summer heat against his shoulders, making him idly wonder if ponies had suntan lotion. The quiet commotion rang all around him like the conversation din in a restaurant. He strained to hear every word of it, every syllable. He wished he could consume this place in its entirety like a dessert, savoring every tidbit of sensation and sound and experience. But he knew that the longer he stood in this spot, the more the those around him would be just as hungry to know more about him. Thankfully, most were too distracted to notice him, though he was prepared for—and received—more than just a few shocked stares and quiet murmurs.
Lily led him on quickly, through a narrow side street that the morning sun hadn’t quite touched. The buildings framing this quiet alley were still quiet and shuttered, and once more he and Lily were momentarily alone.
“Let’s go this way, Caleb. I don’t want you to have to keep getting stared at.” She said sternly.
“It’s alright,” he said, limping along beside her. “I mean, you guys have never seen a human before. We must look pretty strange.”
“Well, I don’t like to judge anypony on appearance. But I will say you did startle me when I first saw you,” she said with a smile. She was leading him back out of the town again, down another wide dirt path. Caleb still winced with every step he took, but realized that it was getting easier to walk as time went on. It seemed Nurse Redheart’s assessment was true after all.
“I must look like hell.”
“You’re certainly not looking your best, I’m sure,” Lily quickly admitted. “But I’m sure with some rest and a hot bath you’ll be a very handsome human, though I don’t really have many to compare you to.”
Caleb cracked a weak smile, still hobbling on beside her. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it, though if you really want to see how you fared I’m sure the Apple Family will have a mirror.”
Caleb’s heart suddenly skipped a beat. “The who now?” he asked, stopping for a moment.
“The Apple Family. They grow a lot of our food and have that big farm over there,” Lily said, extending a hoof to point the short distance down the road where a cluster of low buildings sat dominated by a spectacular three story barn, all amidst rolling hills dotted with neatly-pruned apple trees.
Caleb’s eyes darted to and from each charming feature making up the picturesque ranch. He compared it in his mind from what he had seen of it, as rendered by artists. While not knowing the place by heart, everything was here, and everything was familiar.
“Is something wrong?” Lily asked.
“No, no. Nothing’s wrong,” Caleb said, shaking himself a bit. He pressed his hand to his bandaged head once more. “Just…my head still hurts, that’s all.”
“Do you need me to stop? We can rest if you need to.”
“No, I’m fine. I’m good to go.”
“Alright, don’t overdo it.”
They walked on in silence for the rest of the journey. The enormity of the experience was compounding with each awkward step. And with each step, the place that was such an abstraction to him became all the more real. When they reached the arch hung with a large, carved wooden apple, Caleb felt the tendrils of panic mingling with the excitement buzzing in his brain. He stopped walking, and briefly considered running away, though on this ankle it would have been a pathetic sight indeed, he knew.
“Caleb what’s wrong?” She could read the uneasiness on his face as his eyes continued to scan the quiet barnyard.
“I ah, I don’t know if I can go in there,” he stammered.
“Caleb,” Lily said. “Look at me.”
At her insistence, he could only turn slowly to comply. He felt her dusty hoof take his hand, lifting it delicately. He had never felt a horse’s hoof before, or a pony’s. It felt strange to him, not what he expected. But then again, he wasn’t sure what he had expected to begin with. Caleb’s eyes met hers once more.
“Everything’s going to be alright and I give you my word you’ll be safe here. These are some of the nicest, most accepting ponies I’ve ever met; I’ve known this family for years. They would sooner eat their horseshoes than be unkind to a stranger.”
“I’m sure they are,” Caleb said, swallowing. He suddenly felt thirsty. Thirsty and tired.
“I’m just going to ask if they can spare some space for you to stay while you’re on the mend, alright?”
Caleb nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
Taking a deep breath, Lily led the anxious human down the dusty path, past the barn and into heart of Sweet Apple Acres. Caleb heard the bleating of sheep in the distance and a few chickens fluttered out of his way when the two of them passed through. There was a heavy smell of fermenting apples in the air, mixed with the usual rustic odors found on a farm.
Caleb idly reached for his left hip pocket. Expecting to find his cellphone, he still only found a few stray bits of broken glass. He briefly considered discarding them along the side of the path, but he suddenly felt as if even his footprints were too much of an intrusion, stamping the word “NIKE” in the fine dust of the barnyard with every step.
It wasn’t long before they reached the two story house a short distance behind the barn. Caleb’s heart thumped in his chest. This was where she lived. Lived, worked, played. Here. Right here.
“Here we are. Let’s just see if somebody’s home.” Lily extended a hoof and knocked on the old Dutch door. Caleb waited uneasily for what felt like an eternity an a half before he heard the latch click and the top portion of the door swung slowly open toward the inside.
“Eh, who’s there?”
The voice was tired, creaky and unmistakable. Caleb could see the fire still burning in the weary, dark orange eyes that peered over the lower door. Her mane was pulled back in a tight, white bun, as was her tail. A quick, nervous glance from Caleb toward her flank revealed the faded apple pie that all but confirmed the old pony’s identity. He deliberately hung back, hoping to let Lily do the talking.
“Hello, Granny Smith,” Lily said with a smile.
“Well hello yerself, punkin,” Granny said. “What’s that ya got there with yeh?”
“Granny Smith, this is Caleb. He says his kind are called humans, and that he got lost in the Everfree Forest. He got banged up pretty badly in there, apparently.”
Caleb gave a weak smile and waved a hand amiably. Granny peered at him more in confusion than in any kind of revulsion or distrust.
“Eh, what’s that again? Speak up.”
Lily repeated her statement, this time louder and more annunciated. Granny nodded, apparently comprehending this time.
“So what can we do fer yeh?” Granny asked.
Lily smiled and turned toward Caleb, who maintained his nervous grin, not wanting to offend the elderly equine.
“Caleb here’s been injured. We got him checked out by Nurse Redheart, but she advised him to take it easy for a few days. He’s not from around here, and we were hoping you might be able to give him a place to stay.”
Granny Smith nodded along, apparently thinking it over for a moment before she responded, “Well, ‘course we got the guest room ‘n all. He can stay if he likes, I s’ppose. Why dontcha come on in, take a load off yerself, Clabe.”
“Er, it’s Caleb,” Lily corrected her gently.
“CALEB, his name is Caleb.”
“Oh, right, er, come on in with yeh, Caleb,” she offered, inviting him inside. As he crossed into the sitting room, he could smell the tempting aroma of fresh-baked bread, wafting in from the kitchen to the side. He suddenly realized how hungry he was.
“Granny Smith?” Caleb said. “If it’s not too much trouble, could I get a glass of water?”
“Caleb wants some water, Granny. Don’t worry, I’ll get him some.” Lily offered, wandering into the kitchen.
“That’s fine, dear. You know yer way around th’ kitchen. So,” Granny Smith said, turning around to look at Caleb, suddenly stern. “Wanderin’ round the Everfree Forest by yerself are yeh? You better steer clear, less ya find yerself tanglin’ with Timberwolves or mangled by a Manticore. I been in there myself, ya know.”
“Doesn’t sound like fun,” Caleb said. He could see that Granny’s coat was a faded, pale green and her bony legs quaked softly with each step she took. But there was a steadfast strength about her that seemed to belie her outwardly frail appearance.
“Ain’t no fun about it, sonny. Ya gotta be on yer toes in there, or yer hooves, or whatever you gots in them shoes.”
Lily returned with a glass of water, handing it to Caleb. Through the thick glass of the pony-sized cup he could see faint, milky sediment swirling around and clouding the cold water. Ugh, Caleb thought. Well water.
But as his thirst was far more powerful than his palate, Caleb gratefully chugged the entire glass, calcium deposits and all. Not bad.
“Caleb, I’m going to let you rest. Are you alright here with Granny Smith? I’d love to stay, but I have to get back to my shop,” Lily said, looking truly apologetic.
“Um yeah, sure. No problem,” Caleb assured her.
“Oh, don’t you worry, Lily. He’ll be more than alright. We’ll take him off yer hooves for a bit. Oh ‘n by the way, Cousin Pippin loves those doilies you gave me. Wants a set for herself now too, so I’ll be sure to send ‘er yer way, Lily.”
“Oh, it’s nothing really. Speaking of doilies, I should ah, I should get back to my shop. Goodbye, Caleb. I’ll check back on you later today.”
Caleb simply nodded, looking awkwardly for a place to set his empty glass. It was a short moment before he realized that Lily was leaving.
As she turned to go, he called out, “Lily.”
Lily turned momentarily, looking to Caleb. “Yes?”
“Thank you. Thanks for helping me out.”
“Don’t mention it, Caleb. I’m just glad you’re not seriously hurt. When I first saw you, I had honestly feared the worst.”
“Yeah, so did I.”
Lily flashed her bright smile yet again. “But I can obviously tell you’re going to be okay. Anyways, rest easy, Caleb. I’ll see you later today.”
And with that, the white pony left the house, trotting back up the path toward the barnyard. Caleb watched her go, suddenly feeling unease creeping back into his mind as he stood there alone with the old pony.
“She’s such a sweet girl, she is. Lot like her father, that one,” Granny Smith said. “C’mon, I’ll show yeh to yer room.”
Caleb followed the older pony through the house and slowly up a flight of wide stairs. All around him were little apples, carved intricately into the sturdy beams that made up the frame of this old house. His eyes drifted to each one, then to the apples on the wallpaper. An old, stepia-toned tintype photograph was hung at the top of the landing, showing a smiling group of ponies, all dressed as early American pioneers, complete with a covered wagon. The sense of pride that emanated from the long faces in the photo and in the sturdy, inviting home was palpable.
“Speaking of family,” Caleb asked. “Wheres the rest of yours?”
“Oh, they’re all at market, selling my cinnamon apple butter and some o’ the dried cherries we picked a few months ago.”
They walked down the hall a short distance before Granny Smith nudged open a door, revealing a sparse, but airy bedroom, complete with an apple-printed bedspread and small wooden apples carved into the posts of the bed. There was a large vanity, and a dusty old wardrobe in the corner. Caleb even noticed an old porcelain pitcher and basin parked on top of the dresser.
“Here ya go.” Granny watched him take it in for a moment and smartly added, “We may not be like some o’ them fancy schmancy, Booo-tique hotels they got up in Canterlot; this is about all we got to offer right now.”
A light, warm breeze blew in through the open window, along with the faint smells of the farm across the yard. Thin linen curtains billowed lazily against the fresh air that filled the room.
“It’s beautiful,” Caleb said simply.
“Well, I’m glad you think so. Now why don’t ya get yerself cleaned up a bit and have a rest. I gotta get downstairs and make sure my bread don’t burn. Bathroom’s down the hall and we got fresh towels in the cabinet over the sink.”
“Thanks, Granny Smith. I really appreciate it,” Caleb said, suddenly stumbling over himself to try to express his gratitude.
Granny Smith turned toward the hall and nodded back toward the human.
“Well, you’re welcome, sonny. Just be careful with that hot water tap. Gets a might scaldin’ if ya turn it too quickly. Gotta fix that darn thing, always burning m’hooves while I’m tryin’ to wash ‘em,” Granny Smith said, her look suddenly appearing distant as she turned to start down the hall, still muttering to herself about the sink.
Once again, Caleb was alone. For a full minute, he simply stood in the guestroom, feeling the warm breeze puffing lightly against his skin, the soft sound of the wind occasionally punctuated by the sound of a sheep or rooster. He closed his eyes, trying to collect his chaotic thoughts. Varying explanations for how this, any of this could be possible came and went with fleeting rapidity. Every time he thought he had an answer, no matter how far fetched, his weary mind couldn’t grasp it.
Slowly, Caleb shut the door to the hallway and moved to sit on the bed. The old springs creaked softly while he bent to remove his shoes again, taking extra care not to undo the bandage Nurse Redheart had given him. Once free of his shoes, he fished out the broken shards of glass that remained of his smartphone and set them aside neatly near the wall. He just wanted to lie down for a moment, just to collect his thoughs. He thought that if he just could rest his sore back, his aching leg, and his burning arm that he could get wrap his mind around the situation, that he could make sense of his predicament.
Caleb felt that if he could just clear his mind for a moment, then he could think clearly, try and figure out what he was going to do. He thought that if he just closed his eyes and rested his head on the big, goose down pillow that he could make the headache go away and collect himself. He thought that if he just took a few deep breaths, then…
Sleep claimed Caleb quickly, the exhausted human no longer ruminating or rationalizing. Meanwhile, all of Ponyville was abuzz with the news of the strange, half-dead creature who had befriended Lily Lace.
Squinting in the darkness, Caleb could only feel his way through the cold void in which he stumbled. Try as he might, his hands could not find purchase in the burning blackness. The pain had returned in full force, tearing at his arm and his ankle like vicious dogs. He was freezing and nauseous all over again and the more he bent double, the more he stopped moving, the worse the sickness became. Voices rang in his ears, urgent and fearful. Someone was in trouble. He had to find them. The voices grew louder and more frantic. Caleb would have given anything just to know what they were saying. Just one word.
The smell of solvent stung his nose, reminding him of gasoline or acetone, its tang threatening to ignite at any moment. With each labored breath, the nausea returned in a sickening wave. Caleb knew he had to escape; someone was in trouble! Then came the hands—the cold, clammy hands from all sides that pressed him down, snakelike fingers gripping his arms and legs, even where he was injured. They held him so tight he couldn’t breathe.
It was disturbing. But, then again, nightmares often were. And as Caleb slowly drifted away from that hellish state, he quickly reminded himself that nightmares were not real. Whether it was his own desire to escape the bad dream, or the distant creaking in the floorboards from downstairs, Caleb was gradually stirred to wakefulness. He felt the cool, coarse sheets beneath his hands and ran his finger slowly over the embroidered apples on the edge of the bedspread. He licked his lips, feeling thirsty once more.
The cool morning breeze had waned, with the linen drapes hanging motionless against the edge of the window through which the setting sun cast its deep orange glow on the room. There was a quiet stillness about the room that only now Caleb realized was so elusive at the small apartment he normally called home. He had forgotten just how used to the sounds of car alarms going off or the neighbors quietly laughing while they talked on their cellphones and smoked. Here, things were different.
Caleb sat up slowly, feeling his dirty t-shirt peeling up from the damp halo of sweat he had left on the old sheets. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out of bed, testing his weight on his ankle. It was better, the pain having faded from the intense throbs of agony that plagued his dreams. He walked to the window slowly, peering down on the farm below. Aside from a few hens that idly pecked at the dusty yard, he saw nopony in sight. Returning to the door, he hesitated as he placed his hand on the doorknob. Though he knew where he was, he still felt as if he might be able to imagine just hard enough in his solitude that he was in the real world. In his world.
He licked his lips again, feeling the dryness on his tongue and decided to turn the doorknob. Stepping out of his room, Caleb crept slowly down the hall, wishing he could haunt the place as a ghost without making his presence known. But every step he took gave a satisfying creak in the worn old timbers that made up the floor. He stopped for a moment, listening as voices drifted up the stairs.
“…still asleep?” the little girl said.
“I reckon so. We ain’t seen hide nor horsetail of ‘im.” Said another girl. This one older, more confident. More familiar. Caleb’s hands trembled on the edge of the banister.
“You seen ‘im?” the little girl persisted.
“Ehh, nope,” came a deep voice. Caleb swallowed, inching forward.
“I’m gonna go check on him,” the little girl said again, impatiently.
“He ain’t inna zoo,” came Granny Smith’s sharp rebuke. “Feller’s our guest and you leave ‘im be.”
“Granny’s right. Don’t go botherin’ him,” the older girl said.
Caleb slowly descended the stairs, not bothering to step lightly as every footfall made his presence known. It wasn’t just voices that wafted up the stairway to Caleb. His stomach growled fiercely as the yeasty scent of fresh baking greeted his nose. But his appetite momentarily disappeared when he reached the landing and gazed down at the family of ponies that quietly conferred in their living room.
The first to meet his eyes possessed a silky blonde mane, tied with small ribbons at its end. Her light orange face was marked with small, white freckles that danced beside her smiling, green eyes. Even behind the nervousness, the fear, and the trepidation Caleb could so easily see the compassion and determination that shone within them.
“Er, howdy there, partner,” she said.
“Oh, God.” Caleb whispered. The ponies simply stared, worried. Luckily, it was Granny Smith who broke the awkward silence.
“You have a nice rest there, sonny?” she asked, approaching him on the landing. “I reckon yer a bit hungry after bein’ out like a light fer six hours.”
Caleb just blinked, his eyes shifting occasionally to Big Macintosh and Apple Bloom, but mostly just staying pinned on Applejack. After a moment, he responded to Granny.
“Er, yeah, I think I could probably use a bite to eat,” Caleb said, his appetite gradually returning now that he was practically breathing the fresh scent of something baking.
“Well come on down, partner. We’re mighty glad you’re okay. Lily came by the farm and told me that you had a bit of a rough time out there in the Everfree Forest.”
Every time she spoke, Caleb had to fight his disbelief. But he realized he was being rude once more, shook himself, and finally descended the stairs the rest of the way.
“Yeah, pretty rough. Thanks for taking me in everypony,” he said with a tentative smile. “I hope I’m not imposing on you guys.”
“Ehhh, nope,” the large stallion quietly nickered. Big Macintosh certainly lived up to his name. He was, by far, the largest pony he had seen since he arrived earlier in the morning. Standing a few hands taller than Applejack, he carried himself with a quiet, reassuring power that immediately put Caleb at ease with the red pony. He had taken off his plough yoke, but still had the day’s dust caked to his broad hooves.
Apple Bloom, on the other hand, was downright diminutive. The little filly stood scarcely taller than three and a half feet—the bright pink bow affixed to her sandy red mane making up for the lost height. She watched him with bright, curious eyes, behind which brimmed a million questions Caleb knew he likely wouldn’t be able to answer.
“Well, I’m Applejack, and this here’s my brother Big Macintosh, and my lil’ sister, Apple Bloom,” Applejack said. “’Course you already met Granny Smith.”
“Howdy!” Apple Bloom piped up, as if suddenly realizing she could speak to this strange creature.
“Hi,” Caleb said, looking down at the eager filly.
“We was just sittin’ down for dinner, Caleb. Why don’t ya join us?” Granny Smith said, gesturing toward the dining room.
“I’m ah…much obliged,” Caleb said, pleased with himself at his choice of words.
“Ain’t nopony comin’ away from Sweet Apple Acres hungry,” Apple Bloom said proudly. “We’re havin’ mashed potatoes and gravy, with apple cobbler ‘n apple salad. Made the cobbler myself!”
“Hey now, sugarcube,” Applejack said. “Sweetie Belle helped, too.”
“Wait a minute,” Caleb blurted. “Sweetie Belle was over here?”
Big Macintosh gave him a curious look, and Apple Bloom nodded a bit.
“Uh huh! She came by while you were asleep. I was gonna introduce ya’ll, but Granny said I wasn’t allowed to,” Apple Bloom said ruefully.
“We wanted to let you rest,” Applejack explained. “You know Sweetie Belle? Lily said somethin’ about you knowing my friend, Rarity.”
Caleb felt a twinge of panic. He had to play this cool. “Well, I don’t know Rarity. I mean, I’ve heard of her. I’ve never really, ah, met her, or anything.”
“Well, she is tryin’ to make a name for herself,” Applejack explained, turning away from Caleb and leading him to the table. It was a worn, grand piece of furniture, set with a quilted apple tablecloth and huge, family-style serving bowls of food that coaxed him the rest of the way into the dining room. To Caleb, the spread looked like Dr. Atkins’ own, private hell. He couldn’t wait to dig in.
“I got to help her make some dresses once, but then she got mad when I cut the wrong fabric,” Apple Bloom said. She was already spooning a large heap of potatoes onto her plate before passing it to her older brother. The ponies sat on the large, wooden chairs with their back hooves resting firmly on the floor. It was odd to see them dining around a table at the very least.
Caleb awkwardly poured water into the large, hoof-handled dinner mug that sat in front of him and passed it to Granny. After a moment of hesitation, he took a modest portion of potatoes and drizzled a little gravy over the top. His appetite was bigger than that, to be sure, but he still felt as if he had no right to be here. Even smelling the food felt like taking too much from this place. Big Macintosh noticed the small portion, but said nothing. Slowly, Caleb started to eat.
“Rarity’s got a new collection comin’ out for the Summer Sun Celebration. It’s a big secret, won’t let anypony see it,” Applejack said, trying to break the ice. “She’s makin’ me one too.”
“Like your Gala dress?” Caleb said quietly through a mouthful of potatoes. Immediately he realized he had done it again. The knowledge and excitement that boiled in his head had once again spilled over, despite his efforts. He didn’t look up, and instead continued eating. There was an awkward silence as Big Macintosh noisily set down his fork, looking to his sister.
“Um, yeah, s’pose it might be like that,” Applejack said, blinking. She took another bite of salad and chewed it for a bit, trying not to stare at Caleb. Caleb had never seen the Apple family dining, but he had a feeling that their dinner conversations were normally a bit livelier than this.
“You been to the Grand Galloping Gala last year, sonny?” Granny Smith said, still smiling at least.
Caleb set down his fork and made a long show of finishing his chewing, then wiping his face with the old napkin. He had to think fast.
“No, unfortunately. I had a friend who went though. I heard there was a bit of excitement there,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
“Ayup,” Big Macintosh said.
“Excitement’s one word for it, ah suppose,” Applejack said. “’Course we got a lot more catering jobs after that cake.”
Caleb felt emboldened.
“Would this happen to be the cake that did some aerial acrobatics in the ballroom?” he chuckled.
“The same,” Applejack said. “I s’pose word travels pretty fast to where you’re from. Speakin’ of which, just where are you from?”
“I’m from a town called Auburn,” Caleb said, realizing he was on thin ice. “It’s, well, it’s not in Equestria.”
“I ain’t never been outside Equestria, what’s it like?” Apple Bloom asked excitedly. She had finished her dinner quickly, turning her attention now to the odd, pink primate sitting with her family.
“Well, it’s um…it’s cold,” he said flatly.
“Do they have ponies there?” Granny smith asked curiously.
“Yeah, they’ve got ponies there,” Caleb said, digging back into his potatoes.
“Well, as far as I know, we ain’t got any of your kind here,” Applejack said. “Not that we aren’t glad you dropped by. Lily said you had some trouble in the Everfree Forest.”
“Yeah, I took a really nasty fall down an embankment. Then I got lost,” Caleb said, finishing his dinner.
“Aw, you poor thing. Well, don’t you worry, Caleb. You’re a lot better off now that you’re in Ponyville,” Granny smith said, placing a hoof on his shoulder.
Caleb turned to her and smiled, trying to disguise a heavy sigh with an awkward cough.
“I want to thank you for taking me in. All of you. I, don’t really know what to say,” he said.
“Ya just said it,” Applejack said with a self-satisfied smile.
The sun had finally set outside, and the soft, lazy chirp of crickets was drifting into the house with the cool summer air. Caleb tried the salad as the rest of the dinner conversation edged toward more mundane topics, such as crop projections and Apple Bloom’s plans to expand her tree house. Caleb felt grateful he could just sit and listen, something it seemed at the moment he shared with the large, red pony to his right.
After dinner, Apple Bloom and Big Macintosh cleared the table, bringing the dishes to Applejack. The light orange pony was busy pumping the sink full of water which was already beginning to froth with soapy bubbles.
“Didja like the cobbler?” Apple Bloom asked Caleb. He was standing up from the table slowly, his ankle definitely feeling better.
“Trick is, ya gotta put in just the right amount of cinnamon, or else it just doesn’t taste right,” the filly said with pride.
“Hey now, sugar cube. You’re not givin’ away the Apple Family secrets already are ya?” Applejack teased. “Why don’t you finish the dishes up for me so I can get Caleb’s help out in the yard.”
Apple Bloom started to protest. “But I can go out in the yard too!”
“You sure can, ‘soon as the dishes are done,” Applejack chuckled. “It’s your turn, remember?”
“Ugh, fine.” Apple Bloom reluctantly traded places with her sister, scrubbing the pile of dishes in a hurry to catch up with them.
Turning to Caleb, Applejack quietly nickered “C’mon, I know you’re a little beat up, but I thought you might want to get some fresh air.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” he said, having quietly wondered how he was going to do farm labor with a sprained ankle and a bad arm. Applejack dried her hooves off on a towel by the sink and pushed open the Dutch door to the yard with Caleb in tow. It was early evening, and the glow from the moon was still competing with that of the setting sun, creating a gentle light that brought long shadows to the objects in the yard.
“Caleb, I just want to say I’m sure glad you’re alright. Lily said you was lucky to get out of the forest alive,” Applejack said with concern. She led him to the chicken coop where several hens were pecking idly about the yard near their open paddock. She pulled a sack of grain from where it hung on a worn fencepost and began to sift some of the oats onto the dirt. In a great cacophony of fluttering and feathers, the chickens came storming out of their coop and clustered eagerly around the small pile of grain by their feet. She offered the sack to Caleb, who tentatively began feeding the chickens as well. He felt the ruffle from their wings flapping against his jeans as he threw the oats about clumsily.
“Lily’s really sweet, but I think she might be exaggerating about me,” he said with a dismissive chuckle, plunging his hand back into the sack for more oats.
“No, Caleb, she ain’t,” Applejack said, her voice suddenly stern. Caleb paused, licking his lips and turning reluctantly to meet the narrowed green eyes beneath the wide cowboy hat.
“What do you mean?” he asked blankly.
“Caleb, I don’t want to be rude and pry into other people’s affairs, and such. It ain’t my way. But I know when somepony ain’t tellin’ me the whole truth, and I don’t like it. Rarity’s a mighty fine dressmaker, but she ain’t known much outside of Canterlot or Ponyville.”
Caleb looked at his shoes, saying nothing.
“Plus you mentioned Sweetie Belle and she ain’t never been outside of this part of Equestria. You seem to know an awful lot about us ponies for a feller from outside Equestria. I reckon you ain’t tellin’ us the whole story, Caleb,” Applejack said. There was more concern in her voice than irritation, but every word, every admonishon felt like the end of the world to Caleb.
“Look, Applejack, I’m sorry,” he said quietly, resting his hands on the fence and looking away. “You’re right, there’s a lot I haven’t told you because I didn’t know if you’d believe me, or if you’d trust me.”
“Well, beggin’ your pardon, Caleb, but how’m I s’pose to trust a feller who can’t level with me?”
“Element of Honesty,” he quietly muttered. Caleb swallowed and took a deep breath. This was it. He had to spill it. He knew he couldn’t keep this charade up forever. And he realized that the longer he played stupid, the more he was insulting them. He knew it wasn’t right.
With great effort, he looked Applejack in the eye once more.
“I know a great deal about you, about Ponies, about Equestria in general. I feel like I’ve been here before, but I know I haven’t. And please trust me when I say I have no idea how I got here,” Caleb said, his voice shaking slightly. He spoke in a conspiratorial murmur, as if terrified someone might overhear them. “That’s the honest truth.”
“Alright, Partner, that’s more like it. I believe you, and I ain’t mad at you. We just wanna help you, Caleb. Now what’s goin’ on?”
Caleb took a deep breath, leaning his head back. How could he explain this? Would he tell her to look for a tattoo that said “© 2011 Hasbro Inc?” Could he ask her if she gets the Hub or what her favorite episode was? No, this was much more than that.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve watched you and your friends lives on a medium called television,” he said simply, feeling stupid with each word.
“Tell a Vision? You’re seein’ us in visions?” she asked, worried.
“Kind of,” Caleb said, already frustrated. “It’s hard to explain. It’s a technology we have where I’m from. It’s like…watching a party from a window outside, but you can’t go in, and no one can hear you or see you. All you can do is watch.”
“Er, you’re watching us from far away?” Applejack asked. “Why?”
“Well the whole problem is that you’re not real!” Caleb blurted. Applejack frowned, almost as if sizing him up for a trip to the equine psych ward.
“I mean, I didn’t think it was real until now,” Caleb said.
“Ya mean, like a dream?”
“Exactly, though other people where I’m from see these visions too. But we think it’s just fantasy,” he said. He felt he’d rather keep to himself the fact he still wasn’t convinced that everything around him was just that.
“Well, I can tell ya with reasonable certainty that I am the genuine article. And I’m pretty sure I can vouch for my family too,” she said with a chuckle. To Caleb, she seemed to be taking this reasonably well. He could only hope she wasn’t leading him along. But he knew that Applejack would be the last pony who would ever do so.
“I know, I know,” Caleb said, sighing. “I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I got here, or why I’m here. I just didn’t know if I could tell anypony because I didn’t think they’d believe me.”
“I believe you, Caleb,” Applejack said simpy. She put her hoof on his shoulder and gave him another kind smile. “Don’t you fret none. Tell you what, partner. I’ve got a friend who might be able to help figure this one out.”
“Twilight Sparkle?” Caleb asked.
“Um, yeah, how did you…ah, never mind.”