I seriously considered dropping everything and just showing up at my parent’s house and finding some excuse to stay the night. They’d laugh it off as me being scared to sleep alone in a big empty house for the first time and my mother would baby me as she tends to do. Not my mother, father or younger brother would think for one solitary second that I was afraid to stay there because I was scared of a horse.
Not the horse itself so much, but…the concept of the horse.
After I had caught my breath back in the forest I had come back to the house, thrown the shovel off the end of the back porch, and made a hasty retreat to the guest room I used to sleep in as a kid. Nothing like cowering under the covers from all the strange, scary things in the world to make you feel like an adult.
“Okay…Okay. So, like what are the chances I’m dreaming right now?” I asked the dirty box on the bedside table. “I mean, that might explain the weirdness out in the woods before I saw that…little talking horse-oh god it sounds so bad! It sounds bad just saying it!”
The box just sat there of course.
“I know! I sound like a total nutcase! A horse! Oh god, Dr. Bennet’s gonna get a kick out of this!” I doubled over, trying to ease the queasiness in my stomach. “But no…no I’m…good. I’m calm, deep even breaths.”
I didn’t even want to think of what my therapist would have to say about this. Which is why I was of course not going to tell her. I was never going to tell anyone about what I saw, or didn’t see.
In fact, what horse? I didn’t see a horse. It didn’t scream at me and have those big, scared eyes-oh god I can’t-
I screamed with frustration, currently muffled by the comforter I had my face stuffed into. I couldn’t get the sight of it out of my head. The memory was still vivid, burning behind my eyelids. I tried to look for the seams in the image, where it might’ve blurred ever so slightly and shown any sign of being a figment of my imagination, where things didn’t quite fit together. Aside from everything that told me otherwise, it was…too real.
I heard its voice, saw the rise and fall of its chest…How it stared at me so afraid…Christ, I think I even caught a whiff of its hair? It didn’t smell like an animal. It smelled like…
“Roses. The goddamn horse smelled like fresh-cut roses-I’m fucking nuts, aren’t I?”
Another scream into the comforter. This was getting ridiculous.
“Okay so…Option A: My mind was messing with me and whatever I did or didn’t see out in those woods. Option B, said horse was…” No, it was too stupid to even consider.
“It couldn’t have been…real-no no no no no, don’t even say it out loud-don’t even think it!” I chastised myself. “Just…forget. Yeah! Why not? It’s not like you’ll ever go back into those woods for any reason! Unless that thing comes knocking on the door you’ll never even have to think about it ever again! You’ll wake up in the morning and this’ll all have been a bad dream.”
I made up my mind pretty quickly on that, the alternative was too hard to even consider. But that still left me with another huge inconvenience to deal with.
The box was just begging to be tossed in the trash.
But against my better judgment, I didn’t even touch it for another couple of hours. I busied myself with unpacking some of my personal things that I’d left in boxes when Teddy and my cousins were here. But I would glance back to the box every now and then. It just sat there, mocking me. I finished up and climbed back into bed, closed my eyes and tried my best to doze off. Only to jerk back awake maybe an hour or two later, somehow feeling more tired than before.
I turned the bedside lamp back on, rubbing at my still-adjusting eyes. It was two in the morning and a real relaxing sleep didn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. I made my way downstairs to the moving boxes I’d yet to unpack in the living room.
“If I’m gonna be up all night I might as well get something done…Take my mind off…things.”
When I was in high school, and just starting therapy sessions with Dr. Bennet, she suggested picking up a hobby. Something to keep my hands busy and my head focused. So I resumed a hobby I used to do as a kid and found a new use for it.
I rooted around the boxes from my bedroom in the apartment and found what I’d been working on before all this. One of my older cousins, maybe a second cousin it gets hard to keep track, had a little girl who would be turning three in a couple of months. And that meant like all the tiny members of my impossibly large, crazy family, she’d be getting a special present from me.
I sat in the armchair, my supplies spread out on the coffee table, and got to work. I suppose one could have stranger hobbies, but when people met me they usually didn’t expect me to make stuffed animals for fun. I always hand-stitched them, it took longer than using a sewing machine but the stiches I made were very detailed and time-consuming. It was relaxing, if I was being honest. Plus, the end result could make for a nice gift, or a neat way to earn a little spending money off online craft stores. I could even sew little outfits for them, though I was still learning that part.
“There we go little guy…almost done.” I finished the stitching on everything but the hole I left for the stuffing. Puff after puff of polyester fluff was stuffed into this new creation of mine, I used a spare crochet hook to poke it into the smaller spaces. Apparently, my baby cousin was super into sharks right now, so a super fluffy-looking Great White with button eyes about as big as my forearm was my project for the last few weeks. Not the most complicated thing I’d ever made, but it was certainly different. I stitched the stuffing hole and finished everything up.
“There! Now I just gotta mail you out and-…oh. I think…yeah I think I used up the last of the packing tape in the move, shark.” I sighed, making a mental note to swing take this to the post office too, along with the garbage bill.
Grandpa’s garbage bill.
“Nooooooo!” I groaned, feeling nine hundred times more exhausted than before. “You’re dealing with crazy right now, not sad! One overwhelming emotion at a time please!!”
I wasn’t exactly the best person to deal with my emotions, that was my therapist’s job. But I just needed to keep myself under control until my next session. I couldn’t afford to lose my head over all of this and start neglecting myself and my responsibilities.
What responsibilities? I thought. I have a part-time job that was practically handed to me because I’m family and a house I don't deserve. No friends or expectations…I can’t even look after a houseplant without killing it. Nothing I have going on for me actually matters.
The silence of the house this early was overwhelming.
“…maybe I should talk to Dr. Bennet about upping my dosage…”
I put my supplies away in silence, dragging myself back up the stairs and flopping onto my bed. I didn’t even look at the box. I had suddenly lost all object permanence. If I couldn’t see it, it didn’t exist.
But all the denial in the world couldn’t make it disappear.
I sat up, slowly peeking out of one eye. Still there, still slightly covered in dirt.
In all fairness, the box wasn’t responsible for any of this.
“It’s not like the box and that…thing had anything to do with each other. This is still what I went out there for in the first place…”
I wanted to open it. I still had no clue as to what could be inside, but if it would let Grandpa rest easy (metaphorically or otherwise) I could get it over with.
“Actually no. That sounds horrifying, now that I think of it. Grandpa, I hope you’re not haunting me until I do whatever this is…this mysterious unfinished business of yours.”
I grabbed the box by the cleaner parts and took it downstairs to the kitchen. I set it onto the dinner table and got my pocket knife from my bag by the front door. It sliced through the plastic wrap and I tossed it in the trash. The key from Grandpa’s study sure looked like a match for this thing, though I could be done with this if it didn’t. With a deep breath I put the key in the lock. It fit, of course.
The first thing I saw inside was a round, wooden brush with a strap on the back tucked into the corner. A small buttercup yellow bag with a red drawstring, and when I picked it up I heard change jingling inside. Couldn’t be more than a few bucks by the weight. A thick manila envelope, it was sealed so I set it aside to decide if I should open it later.
And underneath everything was a fancy-looking journal. It looked like leather but not quite, a similar material and it looked very tough. There was a metal band sealing the front, like you’d see on a diary. Kind of like the one I had as a kid. Except-
“There’s…no lock.” I was puzzled. The metal band attached into the front cover and into the back, but nothing to unlock, no clasp to undo. It was just closed.
If I wanted to get inside, it looked like I’d need some tools.
“Well, I do work at a hardware store.” I shrugged, not really feeling the urge to read somebody’s diary, especially if they went through this much trouble to keep people out.
But the more things I pulled out, the more confused I got. This just seemed like somebody’s…stuff. Nothing special about it, if you didn’t count the weird book. This box seemed out of place, sure. A hole in the ground in the woods is a weird place to find most things. But nothing like a secret Grandpa would keep. So…
“The envelope. Okay.”
It was pretty innocuous-looking, but what could be in here that would make Grandpa swear never to tell another living soul?
“God, I just made myself nervous…” I half-laughed, my stomach in knots. I undid the little metal clasp and pulled out an old, thin photo frame. I turned it over to see the picture.
And before I could even scream, the glass has shattered on the kitchen tile.
“Oh no. No no no nonononono-“
My wobbly legs gave out, sending me to my knees on the tile. I was feeling so many conflicting emotions my stomach was doing flips now. Fear, confusion, anger, frustration, and oddly enough…relief.
Ten little horses in two rows. Smiling at the camera in front of a schoolhouse.
“Well…” I whimpered, my voice trembling. “…at least I’m not nuts…”
So, on the one hand, the horse in the woods was real.
On the other hand, the horse in the woods was real.
Meaning I had quite a few questions about what sort of nightmare realm I had stumbled into. And why the hell Grandpa wanted me to find it.
The horse and the box were one hundred percent for sure connected now. The chances of it being anything else were slim to none.
“Grandpa, what in the actual fuck did you get me mixed up in?” My chest was tight and the overwhelming mix of emotions completely dwarfed everything I’d been feeling up until then.
The photo was old, not black and white old but that brown, sepia-toned kind. And it had been underground long enough for me never to have noticed a freshly dug hole in the ground in the woods since I was a kid so…chances of it being a fake were very bad. Had I not seen one of them not that long ago, I could’ve convinced myself it was just photoshop. Granted it would’ve been the clearest, up close picture of a cryptid, and the subjects were literally posing for the photo. Not your usual blurry Bigfoot candid.
“I need to...I need to clean up this glass. Wonderful time to be barefoot Lottie.” There was a broom and dustpan in the garage, I was sure I’d seen it.
“Okay…I’m not usually so careless.” I assured myself, throwing out the glass. “I got spooked, but I’m okay. I’m…okay.”
The little horses were what my thoughts kept coming back to. The frame was picture-side down on the tile, if it had landed right-side-up I might’ve fled the room by then. Out of sight, but certainly not out of mind. Their forms in my head were vague and, if anything, it was making them all the more threatening. That and the fact that I still didn’t want them to be real. But as terrifying as the encounter with the horse in the woods was, looking back on it past the fear and denial, the horse itself wasn’t completely scary-looking.
Pale green eyes wide with terror, but they were expressive eyes. And even standing up on its hind legs, it was fairly smaller than me. Probably wouldn’t stand much taller than just past my hips. Five-year-old Lottie probably would’ve thought it was the best thing ever. Cute even.
“A picture of cute little talking horses can’t possibly freak me out as much as the real thing.” I laughed, my nerves were still shot and I decided to take advantage of my temporary calm.
I opened up the back of the shattered frame to get the photo inside. And sure enough, they weren’t so scary. They looked much smaller than the one I saw and considering they were posing in front of a schoolhouse, I’d bet it was a class photo.
“So, not only do they talk, they go to school?”
And looking again, I seemed to have discovered something that nearly got to me again. I made myself sit in the chair this time rather than falling to my knees.
Out of the ten little horses, three of them weren’t horses at all.
Two had wings, and one was-
“A unicorn. A goddamn unicorn. And some…pegasuses?”
I shouldn’t have looked…I need a cigarette.
After the new revelation that not only do talking horses one-hundred percent for sure exist but also actual, factual mythical creatures, I took a few minutes to myself to pace the kitchen a few dozen times. There was ranting and raving about the impossibilities of it all. Denial seemed to be my go-to state of being lately. Luckily my closest neighbors were a good half mile down the street, or they might’ve thought I was some kind of lunatic. Outside of this particular situation, I mean.
“I definitely can’t tell anyone any of this…” I sighed, running my hands through my hair, slumped over in the kitchen chair. “Is this what Grandpa meant? Is this the earth-shattering secret he just had to let me in on? Well, it’s pretty neat, I’ll admit! But I’m kind of at a loss here! Jesus H. Christ, I’m too tired for this bullshit!”
The photo was upsetting, to say the least, but it raised so many more questions than I was prepared to deal with. Unicorns and pegasuses were real, and living somewhere beyond the woods behind my Grandpa’s house? They could build buildings? Where were they and why hasn’t anyone found them? Did Grandpa find them? Did he ever meet one?
Upon even further inspection, the back of the photo had some faded writing. In a language I’d never seen before. That or whoever wrote it had horrific handwriting. It could’ve been their language, I pondered. If I hadn’t seen the photo of the schoolhouse the idea of horses reading and writing would’ve seemed bizarre, one would think they’d spend all their time frolicking in meadows or whatever. None of the characters even remotely made sense in my head.
And something that felt very out of place, even for unicorns and such, was a tiny detail I could barely make out on this small, old photo. I wasn't sure what to make of it.
The ones who were sitting at an angle, including the bigger normal horse I would assume was the teacher, had something on their backsides. Blurry pictures but pictures nonetheless. One of the normal ones had a stalk of wheat, or maybe asparagus? And one of the winged ones had a cloud. Another normal one had blocks, maybe sugar cubes?
"I have no idea. There not brands, can't be tattoos with the fur. At least I think so..." I looked at the picture again, realizing I was trying to process the finer details of a horse school photo. Logic and common sense were long gone by now. "Hell, there's mythical creatures involved. Maybe it's something dumb. Like...magic. Whatever."
More things were coming to my attention. A second look at the “change” I’d heard jingling around inside the pouch actually turned out to be about twenty gold coins with no written inscriptions on any of them. I wasn’t even sure if they were real gold but that was kind of the least of my worries at the moment.
Even the brush, looking at it with this recent revelation, looked more like one you’d use for an animal…a horse.
I wasn’t sure what any of this meant. Or what to do with any of this new information. It was still very early in the morning and sunrise was hours away. The last week I had found myself awake well into the night, any sleep was scarce and rarely left me well-rested.
“Maybe…I can get a few hours of sleep before I run out in the morning. I still need to grocery shop too…” I’d be expected back at the hardware store by the end of the week. Teddy tried to give me a bit more time but I told him that I’d be better off keeping myself busy. That would give me time to get all this sorted out.
Whatever that meant.
-Not too long ago, elsewhere-
Pinkie Pie sighed, her body slumping over the front counter. She had already baked the morning’s goods, made a fresh batch of icing, helped Mrs. Cake with inventory, ran the counter for the morning rush and afternoon rush, helped Mr. Cake put the twins down for their nap, and had herself a snack. They usually got a little busy this close to closing. It was very nearly fall and everypony was at Pumpkin Spice’s stand getting themselves all kinds of goodies. The Cakes of course had the business savvy to bake some super-delicious pumpkin treats for the season, but it was tough to compete with a pony whose whole life’s work revolved around gourds and such.
Pinkie wasn’t a sore loser or anything, she was happy for Spice and her busy season, but watching a counter with so few customers was never her favorite part of the job. That would be giving out treats to happy customers! (and licking the spoon, of course.) She rolled on the counter some more, ending up on her back and lolling her head over the front, entertaining herself with Upside-Down Ponyville. Bon-Bon and Lyra Heartstrings were having a chat across the street so Pinkie decided some made-up dialogue was in order.
“Why good day to you, Upside-Down Bon-Bon!” she said in her best Lyra voice. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
“Why yes Upside-Down Lyra! But not as beautiful as you!”
“Oh, you flatterer you!”
“No flattery here, my dear. In fact, will you marry me??”
Upside-Down Lyra gasped dramatically. “Of course, my upside-down love! Let’s get married today! And have our good friend Upside-Down Pinkie Pie throw us a super-duper-amazing reception!!”
“That’s the kind of amazing thinking that made me fall for you in the first place, you gorgeous, upside-down goddess!”
Pinkie yelped and fell off the counter, collapsing into a fit of giggles at the great scare. Mrs. Cake, right-side up and everything, was looking at her with a little concern.
“Hi Mrs. Cake!” she laughed, getting to her hooves again. “Sorry, just feeling a little silly! I’ll get back to watching the store!”
“Actually, Mr. Cake and I were thinking of closing up a little early. Most of the morning inventory got sold in the breakfast rush and we thought it might be a chance to take advantage of the not-so-busy season before the usual Nightmare Night rush. Get a head start on Pound and Pumpkin’s costumes, you know?”
“Ooh!” Pinkie bounced in place, feeling giddy at the mere mention of the holiday. “Are they gonna be something extra-super cute!? I know it’s gonna be a surprise and I love surprises but I couldn’t help but ask!”
“It’s fine, dear. I really think we came up with something special this year!
Just as Pinkie was about to list all twenty-seven of the best guesses she had for what the Cakes had planned, something out-of-place yet extremely familiar was heard. Her ears pivoted towards the door, trying to focus.
Sure enough, Roseluck was galloping into town from way off in the distance, but instead of her usual cries of the horror of things, she was panting, and whimpering, and most upsetting, crying. She rounded the street running right past Right-Side-Up Lyra and Bon-Bon towards the flower shop where she worked.
“Oh my!” Mrs. Cake gasped, a hoof over her muzzle. “That seemed worse than usual! I hope the poor dear is alright. Pinkie, maybe you-“
But Pinkie was already gone.
Pinkie found Roseluck in the embrace of Lily and Daisy, her fellow florists. They were looking at her with wide eyes and trying their best to calm their friend down.
“Oh, Rosie, tell us what’s wrong!” Daisy fretted, stroking her mane. Roseluck was panting some more, tears running down her face.
Pinkie was about to offer anything and everything that would make Roseluck happy to make her smile again (a vanilla cupcake with icing flowers, some fresh-cut tulips, some tea and maybe a hug or two) when Rainbow Dash zipped in from out of nowhere, obviously concerned.
“Hey Roseluck, I heard you all the way from my place. You ran clear across Ponyville and then some! What gives?”
“I-…It was…there was a-“ she struggled to get the words out in-between gulps of air.
“Ooh! Me! Let me guess!” Pinkie added, very helpfully. “A timberwolf? A changeling? The hydra that lives in Froggy Bottom Bog? Yourself from the future? Two timberwolves? A-“
“Pinkie!” Rainbow shouted, cutting off what was sure to be a too long and too scary list for the trio to handle. Daisy and Lily were looking like they could faint any second. For all she knew this could be about something completely harmless and Pinkie would just be getting them more worked up.
“Oops, never mind.” She bowed her head, moving closer to Roseluck and putting a hoof on her foreleg. “You can tell us, everything’s gonna be a-okay!”
Roseluck was shaking now, but her tears had stopped. She nodded and let out a whimper, wiping her eyes.
“I w-was out in the woods…the ones on the r-road towards C-C…Canterlot! There are wildflowers I wanted to get s-some for the shop…” she got another deep breath. “And I heard somepony!”
Then she started shaking harder.
“But it wasn’t a p-pony at all!! It was a m-m…”
Oh, Pinkie had so many guesses! A manticore! A moose! A maelstrom of malicious salamanders!
She broke down crying again and her friends held her tight, looking more afraid than before. Rainbow and Pinkie exchanged looks, before they nodded and she flew off.
“Wh-…Where’s she going?” Lily asked, shocked at her speedy departure.
“Don’t worry you three! Dashie’s gonna go get Twilight and the others! We’ll make sure no big, bad monsters mess with anypony! That’s a Pinkie Promise!”