In the morning, Jessie Lynn slept in with a hangover. Jolie set out a bowl and a box of cereal for her mother, hoping it would remind her to eat, then headed for the Colton’s.
Since the curriculum for the Utah Universities online high school program was based on the Clark County School’s and she’d done most of the year’s work already, the work had been redundant and easy. Jolie figured she had a little time to spare, and a hammer really was a better tool than a rock.
It was a short walk next door, by rural standards, but a long one compared to Las Vegas, where you could borrow a cup of sugar by opening your window and knocking on the neighbor’s window. Jolie climbed through the fence that separated the properties and headed across the pasture toward the buildings. House and barn were set far back from the road, accessed by a gravel driveway with pastures for the livestock running on either side. Horses grazing in the near pasture raised their heads to look at Jolie as she walked through the tall grass, returning to grazing once they decided that she wasn’t bringing them treats.
One brown gelding rambled towards her, his head bobbing casually between his shoulders. Jolie tried to out walk him, but it only goaded him into a trot. He circled around in front of her, cutting her off.
“What are you doing?” She froze as the horse nuzzled her hand, then her pants pocket. “Hey, don’t get fresh.”
“Hello there, neighbor.” Ward Colton called out as he approached the inner fence. “He thinks you have something for him to eat.”
“I don’t. What do I do?”
“Just give him a pet and walk on over here. He’s not going to hurt you.”
“Okay. I’m going over here to see Ward now,” she told the gelding as she moved forward. The horse genially trailed behind her.
“See? He’s just a big old pocket pony.” The rancher’s calloused hands stroked the horse’s neck with affection.
“I came to borrow that hammer you said I could use.” Jolie cautiously patted the horse’s big head.
“Good. I’m glad you did. Have you got a few minutes? Climb through and let me show you around.”
There was an old weathered barn that looked like it was about to fall down, full of shadows and broken bits of sunshine that made romance and magic from the dust in the air. There was also a newer pole barn with a painted metal roof, and walls of corrugated steel that was much more solid and far less interesting.
“I like the old barn,” Jolie announced. “It looks like it has stories to tell, and if you just sat there on a hay bale it would share them.”
“You sound like you have the soul of a writer.” Ward Colton grinned. “Yeah. There’s character in those old barns, for sure. Even if they aren’t the most practical choice out here in the desert.”
The house, with its full, wrap-around veranda, was a double wide manufactured home, like most of the houses in the rural desert. This far out of the city, a stick built home was an anomaly unless it was a really old place, like the Owens’ shack.
There was a well-tended vegetable garden partially shaded by some large cottonwoods, and a mini orchard surrounding the house in an oasis of greenery. A 60s vintage swing set, recently painted, and a newer playhouse declared that the Colton’s were probably grandparents, anyway, that youngsters still visited them.
Farm vehicles and implements were parked near the barns with no order imposed on their placement. It was a working ranch, not a showplace, and therefore, it was exempt from the meticulous manicuring expected of its upscale cousins down in the Vegas valley.
Ward led Jolie into a dusty tool shed attached to the old barn.
“Poke around over there,” he pointed. “I think you’ll find a hammer. Do you need nails?” He picked up a jar and rattled it before handing it to her. “A shovel?”
“I’ve got one of those.”
He handed her one. “I’m just trying to think through the basics.”
“I’ve got a broom, a leaky hose, some paint and a bunch of rocks, and I’ve gotten a lot of use out of all of them,” Jolie joked.
“I bet.” Ward grinned. On the other side of the wall, they could hear a horse running. “Our trainer’s here today, working with one of the youngsters--horses, I mean. Our kids are all long gone. Come on, let’s take a look.” Jolie followed the rancher out of the tool shed and around the corner to the back. A man in a blue denim work shirt and jeans, with a single long braid hanging down his back, stood in the middle of a circular pen. A black mustang was running around the perimeter of the circle, changing his speed and direction at some invisible command. The trainer put the horse through the transitions over and over again, until it made them seamlessly as if man and horse shared one mind.
“How’s he do that?” Jolie asked, fascinated.
“Magic.” Ward chuckled. The trainer turned his body toward them.
It was Hoke. He saw Jolie and Ward and lowered his arms. The horse stopped, taking the opportunity to catch its breath.
“He’s looking good, Hoke,” Ward complimented the trainer, walking forward to shake the trainer’s hand.
“He’s coming along,” Hoke agreed. “Good morning, Jolie.” He did not seem surprised to see her.
“Good morning.” Jolie nodded.
“You know each other?” Ward was surprised.
“I was going to school with his nephew, Remy, at Chaparral, until this week,” Jolie gave a simple explanation before Hoke could get caught up trying to give a more complicated one.
“Well, isn’t that a coincidence?” Ward shook his head. “But then knowing you, Hoke, it’s probably not.”
Hoke turned back to the horse and resumed his work, without comment.
Jolie and Ward rested their elbows on the fence’s third rail, watching the young horse showing off his mastery, going smoothly from one gait to another at Hoke’s prompt. “He does good work; one of the best around,” Ward commented. “He used to work down in New Mexico on the big ranches there, but when his sister died, he moved up here to be close to her boy. It was a big cut in pay, I tell you, but then most people who live this life don’t do it for the money.”
Jolie couldn’t think why anyone would work without expecting to get paid. Hoke was clearly not a rich man--not even a middle-class man. He had given up whatever security a career and reputation might have offered him to stay near Remy. On a personal level, she understood that. She would have done anything for Remy, but she didn’t think very many adults would have made such a risky financial decision for a kid that wasn’t theirs.
“So what do they do it for, if not the money?” she asked.
Ward looked at the sky, the trees, the young horse who was trying so hard to please the man.
“The life,” he answered. “When I get up in the morning, I don’t need to put on anything to try to please someone else or be someone I’m not. I’m just me. People around here either like me or they don’t, but they know what to expect: no games, no pushing to prove something, no scrabbling for position. It’s simple here. No one cares about that stuff.”
“So you’re a bunch of adult dropouts?” Jolie teased.
Ward nodded. “You got a way of looking at things, Jolie Figg, that just makes me smile. Yep, that’s it, we’re a bunch of adult dropouts. You’d be surprised how many ex-CEOs and PhDs we have out here in Tecopa, mixed in with all the artsy folk, of course.”
Jolie thought about that as she watched Hoke work the horse. Watching closely, she was beginning to see the small changes in Hoke’s body language that cued the horse. It wasn’t magic. It was knowledge. You just had to know how to speak the language.
“Come on, let’s see what else we can send home with you today.” Ward led her back toward the barn.
With some leftover paint, the hammer, a saw, nails, a length of rope, some agave plants, and a baby trumpet vine snatched from Mrs. Colton’s flower beds, all loaded into an old wheelbarrow, Jolie contemplated her foraged loot and the need to get it back home before Ward Colton made the pile any bigger.
“Just load it into the back of my pickup and I’ll run you home,” Ward said, examining the pile.
“I’m on my way out. I’ll take her,” Hoke walked up wiping his face with a handkerchief. Ward looked at Jolie to make sure she was okay with that. She shrugged.
“Okay. Thanks, Hoke.” They transferred everything into the back of Hoke’s truck.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll work him every day this week, except Friday,” Hoke reminded Ward.
“Got it. See you tomorrow.”
Jolie and Hoke got into his truck.
“Remy says that you’re doing better. No more bad dreams?” Hoke asked her as they drove slowly along the Colton’s driveway.
“No.” This was it: her chance to ask Hoke about the demon, Jolie thought. She considered her promise to Yanna Maria and decided that, if she was careful, she could both keep her promise and get information from Hoke. “I still feel like it’s around, though,” she said. “Is that possible?”
Hoke nodded. “People make rules. Spirits don’t--at least none that I know.”
“Then how did you know what to do to send it away?”
“I know what I was taught to do for a wipe down. That is all,” Hoke answered in his simple way.
“You act so humble, Hoke, like you don’t know anything and you’re no one special, but I know that you know things.” Hoke did not deny it. He also did not own it. “You’re not much of a talker, are you?” Jolie added.
“Mostly, people talk to convince someone else to think like they do, but nothing changes.” Hoke shrugged. “Why waste the words?”
“What you have to say could mean a lot to me,” Jolie claimed. “I have questions and I think that you have answers.”
The old trainer shook his head. “Not for you. Your mind is already full. So many problems and plans. So many secrets. You use a lot of words trying to avoid the truth, Girl who Knows Nothing.”
Jolie felt his rebuke like a slap in the face. Did he know about the secret pact she and Yanna Maria had made? It sounded like it, but how could he?
“The problems are related,” Hoke said, mysteriously.
“What problems?” Jolie bit her lip, afraid he understood too much; half hoping that he did.
“The ones swimming around in your head. You think they are separate, but they are the same. Solve one and you will solve the other.”
“Just stop the cowboy Yoda act for a minute and talk to me like a person, okay?” Jolie demanded.
“Yes, truth,” Jolie agreed. “I need to understand what happened to the demon.”
“You don’t,” Hoke disagreed.
“You don’t. Because you already know,” Hoke pinned her.
“So what do I do about it?” Jolie asked.
“I think now it is my turn,” Hoke dodged, answering. “Tell me about Remy.”
Jolie bit her lip. “Okay. When I first met Remy, I had a vision. I think he’s in danger. I think he’s going to die--soon and I don’t know what to do to stop it.”
Hoke’s face tightened. “I have seen this possibility as well.”
“But you know how to stop it, right?”
“If I did, we would not be talking,” Hoke replied.
“But how can that be? You know all kinds of things about the spirit world. How can you not know how to fix this?” Jolie demanded.
“Sometimes we are given sight and sometimes we are left blind.”
“Spirits come when you call them. You removed a demon from me. Saving Remy from an accident has to be more simple than that. Isn’t there like a protection you can give him, a charm or something?”
“If you believe that the spirit world is confined by man’s rules, then you should go back to Sunday school, Wicincala Witko. ”
“My name is Jolie.”
“To other people maybe, but I will call you Wicincala Witko; Girl Who Knows Nothing, because you know so much, but you pretend to know so little.”
“I really do know nothing,” Jolie informed him.
“There are several women I know who would argue with you about that,” Hoke argued. “Rose and Yanna Maria both think very highly of you and your abilities.” Jolie bit her lip. “That makes you uncomfortable.”
“I’m not good with compliments,” she lied.
“Or with lying, either,” he added. The truck stopped. “I hear people say that when the student is ready the teacher will come, but what they do not tell you, is that it is as much a warning as a promise. Yanna Maria is a very complicated woman. She has her own agenda and I do not think any of us understands it yet.”
Jolie’s mouth went dry. He knew. She climbed out of the truck quickly, to avoid giving a response.
“I can get the stuff in the back myself.” She slid the tools and supplies out of the truck bed and set them on the side of the dusty driveway. “Thanks for the ride, Hoke.” She waved, keeping her distance.
“Jolie?” He called her closer. There was no way to avoid moving toward him except outright rudeness. She stepped up to the passenger side window. “Do you remember seeing the other spirit lights out in the desert on Solstice?” Hoke surprised her by asking.
“Yeah.” Jolie nodded.
“Would you like to meet some of them?”
Jolie’s lips bloomed into a smile. “Very much.”
“We are going Ridge Walking on Friday night up in the Spring Mountains. You should join us. It is a ceremony to help spirits who are lost to find their way and cross over. Bring along your demon friend. Maybe you can help him find his way home.”
Jolie broke out into a huge grin. “I’ll try.”
“You know the road to Mount Potosi just over the top of the pass on Highway 160?”
Jolie nodded. “Where the sign to the Boy Scout camp is? I’ve seen it.”
“We’ll meet there just off the highway at nine o’clock. Tell Remy to pick you up.”
“Remy is going?”
Hoke smiled, tipped his hat and put his pickup in drive. He didn’t need to answer her. He wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t true.
“We’ll see you Friday. Wear comfortable shoes.”
When Jolie went into the house, the demon and her mother were waiting for her.
“Where have you been?” the question sounded like the beginning to an inquisition. Jolie was headed into a mine field.
“I went next door to the Colton’s. Ward said I could borrow a hammer, and he gave us some other stuff to help fix things up.”
“You brought that man here?”
“No. Ward didn’t come--” Jolie saw something in her mom’s face. “What man are you talking about, Mom?”
“The one who hurt us. We don’t like him,” a voice that was not quite Jessie Lynn’s hissed.
“Oh my God.” Jolie took a few steps back, certain now that the demon was running the Jessie Lynn reality show. “You mean Hoke, don’t you?”
“We don’t like him.” Jessie Lynn looked out the front window at the driveway where Hoke’s pickup had been idling just a few minutes ago. “Don’t bring him here again. Don’t talk to him. He hurt us.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have tried to take me over, like that,” Jolie defended herself. “You weren’t invited. You had no right.”
“We needed a place to be,” the demon whined like a puppy.
“Well, you won’t find it here.” Jolie remained unsympathetic.
“Oh, but we have.” Jessie picked up a new piece of charcoal and a fresh piece of paper and began drawing. “And we were invited,” it put special emphasis on the last word.
“You can’t live in my mother,” Jolie informed it.
“We can. We make her strong and she has always wished to be strong. It is a good bargain,” the creature’s voice was an eerie, guttural version of Jessie Lynn’s.
“It’s a terrible bargain.” Jolie refused to accept that. “You can’t just take over someone’s life.”
“I can. I have.”
“Well, he isn’t going to let you,” Jolie persisted. “The man, Hoke.”
That made the demon nervous. “He is gone,” it said, Jessie’s eyes flickering to the driveway.
“For now, but I can bring him back,” Jolie boasted.
Jessie Lynn’s eyes narrowed. “What about the other one?”
Jolie hesitated. “What other one?”
“The woman with the necklaces and the black...”
“Hair?” Jolie finished, sure that he meant Yanna Maria.
“No, the black heart.”
That set Jolie back. The fortune teller was crabby and demanding, but did she have a black heart?
“You see her heart?” she questioned. The demon did not answer. “You know this person, from the dream world?”
“Becoming the nurse in your dream was not important. It was just how she slipped in. It was an unimportant role that your mind did not bother to guard. But when you saw her there, you thought it was significant.”
Jolie frowned. “What are you saying?”
Jessie Lynn quit drawing and looked at her, the demon’s intelligence glowing. “You are mistaken about a good many things, Girl Who Knows Nothing.”
Jolie felt her whole world go cold. “You should leave. Leave, or I’ll call Hoke,” she threatened.
The demon guffawed “You are lying. You lie all the time. You told us so.”
“That was sarcasm. This is not a lie. Hoke is looking out for me. So if you try anything, like trying to come back inside my head, he’ll know. He’ll see it, and he’ll chase you out, and send you far away.”
“We do not need you,” the demon bragged. “This woman will let us stay.”
Jolie’s fists clenched. “She won’t. You leave my mother alone.”
“She does not want to be left alone. She is afraid of being alone. You will leave her. It is part of your big plan. I will not.”
“I won’t let you do this,” Jolie argued, unconvincingly.
“You cannot stop me. We are one.”
“You’re not one. You are two, or three, or however many spirits you’ve pasted together to create this thing you’ve become,” Jolie declared.
The demon laughed. “This is none of your business. It is not your choice. This is not your body.”
“What if I let you back into me? Would you leave my mom and let her go?” Jolie offered.
“So that you can have that man send me away again? No,” the demon refused. “This one does not control me. I control her. Go to bed little girl. Sweet dreams.”
Jolie grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch and stomped out to the truck. Slamming the pickup’s door, Jolie wrapped the blanket around her and curled up in the front seat.
The brilliant pinpoints of the deep starfield twinkled at her through the windshield. Slowly the knot in Jolie’s belly began to relax. In spite of everything that was wrong in her life, there were still moments when it felt like the wonder of a single human being suspended time.
Jolie fell asleep on the front seat of the old truck, thinking about how problems came and went like clouds, and whether you chose to curse the gray gloom or see elephants romping across the sky, was more about you and the way you looked at the world than it was about the weather report.