Two Roads Diverged
written by Sugarberry and Tabby
The red mare slipped through the moonlit night, grateful that when the time came to flee, there was a guiding light in the sky to show her the path. Her focus was simply to put as many miles between herself and Dream Valley as she possibly could so that no one could find her.
She had reconnoitered just such a course even before settling in the town; that was one thing her parents had instilled in her-- to always have an escape route ready at a moment's notice. At this particular moment, however, it was small consolation to be prepared; she was walking away from the happiest two months that she had ever experienced.
Garnet stopped for a time to get her bearings; ahead of her, a tall pine reached into the starry heavens, signaling to her that a side path was imminent. Moving cautiously so as not to miss the turnoff, the mare became aware of voices coming in her direction along the main path; she silently melted into the underbrush along the road, ignoring the scratches from the now nearly barren branches and waited breathlessly.
A family of catlike creatures passed by on the path; Garnet didn't recognize them as Pokemon, but there were in fact Meowth. Two were leading the way and were followed by five smaller versions of themselves. "It's been so long since we've been to see Tabby; I hope she isn't offended," the leading female fretted.
"Nah, she'll understand," her mate assured her. "She's been pretty busy herself, what with getting married and all..."
"And word travels so slow out here, we didn't hear about their new daughter until just recently," the female continued. "I do wish this visit had been sooner in coming."
"Tess, stop worrying! Besides, we have a very nice present to give Faline."
"Me, you mean?" one of the younger Meowths purred. "Oh, this is going to be fun! I can't wait to have a real trainer." The conversation gradually faded away as the family moved on further down the path.
The danger of discovery now past, Garnet moved out onto the path once more and sought out the turn that would take her south; she walked for miles before she reached a sharp bend; abandoning the walkway, the mare pushed through the slender red branches of the dogwood and came to a spreading meadow, brown and dry under the cold night, and headed for the sagging outline of an old, deserted barn that clung tenaciously to its purpose of sheltering animals and fodder.
The decaying structure was currently housing no more than field mice and a snowy white owl and the remains of an alfalfa crop from years ago; but, to Garnet, it was a welcome haven. She knew from her earlier inspection that she would find a snug, if not dusty, loft of hay at the top of the rickety ladder that leaned precariously against the warped, gray boards. Gingerly picking her way up the treads, she set her backpack down for a pillow and threw her shawl over her body for a blanket. Ignoring the creaks and rustling of the building and its resident creatures, the pony fell asleep.
* * *
The rush of owl's wings woke Garnet at the first crack of dawn as the nocturnal bird came home from his hunting. Still groggy from her sleep, Garnet stretched lazily, not remembering where she was until the scratchy grasses beneath her forced her to face the fact that she was no longer snug between smooth sheets in her apartment in Dream Valley. That realization dampened the mare's mood, and she closed her eyes in an attempt to shut out her future.
This was one of the few times in Garnet's life that she had felt this depressed over the circumstances she found herself in. She had always been able to take any problem and work it to her advantage; there was a certain thrill in making the best of a bad situation, and she flourished in facing each new obstacle that challenged her. But this time it was different.
In Dream Valley, Garnet had found an unconditional acceptance that she had learned to accommodate, then to appreciate, and finally to value. She had found herself becoming more open to the friendship that was offered to her, and she had amazed herself at the ease in which she was eventually able to reciprocate those feelings to others. Wigwam and Butch had trusted her explicitly at the casino; Chocolate Chip and Fern had included her in all their plans; and Wishbone-- well, Wishbone had somehow caught her fancy; she would like to have gotten to know the stallion better. Events, however, had mandated her hasty departure from the one place where she had truly felt at home.
Groaning over her thoughts, Garnet managed to sit up and survey her surroundings in the early gray morning light that was filtering through the cracks in the roof and angling through the gaping square window high in the angle of the wall. The owl was nearly invisible as it sat on one of the rafters over her head; its large, round eyes stared at her, but it did not feel threatened by the presence of the pony. A lone mouse scampered across the flooring as it headed for its home in the hay. Otherwise, the old barn was quiet and very private.
As the mare drooped her head, finding it difficult to get moving, her green mane fell across her face; she ran a hoof through the silky tresses that at birth had been as red as her crimson body and suddenly found an incentive to propel her upright; she grabbed her backpack and shawl and went out into the windless morning.
A white frost had settled on the land in the coldest of the early morning hours; a weak sun was just beginning to turn that frost into sparkling gems of color. Garnet got her bearings and walked across the meadow toward a line of trees that signaled the passage of a river. Her hoofs left dark tracks across the frosty landscape.
Garnet was able to hear the flow of water before she actually saw the stream that went its unhurried way to the south. Once she passed through the sheltering trees, she came to the edge of the bank and looked down upon the dark, languid liquid. A shiver passed through her body as she thought of bathing in that wintry water, but her mind was set; she followed the bank of the river until the land beneath her hooves had dropped to a level equal to the water's edge. Tossing her backpack and shawl to the ground, she progressed beneath the trees gathering enough dry wood with which to build a fire.
The heat of the flames brought some comfort to Garnet; and, for a space of time, her resolve faltered; but she combated the desire to stay warm and dry and forced herself to take out of her traveling satchel a bar of soap with which she entered the water. The first cold step was enough to bring back her natural fight, and she continued until the water was deep around her; she then proceeded to lather her mane and tail with the soap until the green color that she had applied before entering Dream Valley began to run in sickly dark rivulets away from her down the river.
When she was satisfied that her own red hair was again highlighting her equally red coat, she began to concentrate on washing the wreath design off her flanks, revealing the pattern of a gemstone... a garnet. When that was done, she rinsed herself thoroughly and came out of the water a different pony.
The strengthening sunbeams hit the pony from over the tops of the trees causing her newly cleaned hair to shine. Garnet took a moment to look at her reflection in the water and smiled. It felt good to shed the deception that she had been carrying since the end of summer. That was the only positive thing that had come of her unplanned departure: She could be herself again.
Shivering deeply, Garnet hurried to the fire and allowed it to dry her; she used her brush to smooth the ruby locks in place and was so fully absorbed with that task that she did not notice the approach of two small ponies from downriver. "Good morning!"
Garnet was so startled at the unexpected sound of the sing-song voice that she dropped her brush; it bounced into the flames and almost immediately began to melt.
The two foals watched in amusement as the red mare tried desperately to retrieve the only hairbrush she owned. It was a losing battle, and Garnet finally owned up to her defeat and watched the purple plastic shrivel up into a black, crumpled mass of waste. Only then did she look closely at her visitors.
The larger of the two youngsters, the spokespony, was a deep indigo blue with yellow locks that curled in random abandon around her face; the second was a rough and tumble colt, younger but equally self-assured. The two stared open-faced at the mare as she returned their gaze.
"What are you doing here?" the gray colt asked, tossing his slate grey mane with authority, a spattering of freckles marking his face.
What are you doing here? The question echoed through Garnet's mind as she stared at the foal before her, who looked so much like her brother, Sable. Her mind flew back to the days when she had been a foal and had admired the sibling that was several years older than she was; she idolized him, and he found her attention an annoyance. She had followed him like a puppy over the years, craving for his attention, until one day when she had gone to his room in search of him, he had found her there; and his voice had thundered, "What are you doing here?"
The anger that accompanied the question had frightened Garnet, and she had run from the room and hid until her mother found her and explained that Sable was in trouble because his teacher had caught him cheating on a test; and as young as she was, Garnet had understood that the problem in her mother's eyes was in his getting caught, not in his cheating. What are you doing here?
Impatient for an answer, the older of the two foals asked her own question. "What's your name?"
Breaking through the memories of her own childhood, the red mare answered without thinking. "Garnet."
"Garnet," the little filly repeated. "That's a pretty name. Mine is Tasha."
Garnet could not help but smile at the open, trusting nature of these two bright-eyed meadow nymphs. "It is nice to meet you."
"Children! Where are you?" a voice called from further down the river, and Freckles responded with a return call. Soon, a colorful mare appeared around the bend of the stream, her bright yellow body a bright beacon in the landscape; her rainbow hair was braided; and in her forelegs, she carried a very young foal.
"You were supposed to wait by the cottonwood," she said breathlessly as she came near the trio standing by the still burning fire and frowned at the foals; but her eyes belied her anger.
"We couldn't wait," Freckles said. "We saw someone." He and his sister turned their eyes to Garnet, and the newly arrived mare did, too.
"Hi," she said. "I'm sorry about that brusque greeting, but I was worried about my children. They have an insatiable curiosity about visitors to our neck of the woods." She beamed with pride at the two before returning her approving gaze to Garnet. "My name is Rainbow Star, and this is Palette." She held forth the tiny colt who, like his mother, had rainbow hair; his body, what was visible from beneath the blue blanket, was a pale, creamy yellow.
Before Garnet could respond herself, Tasha introduced the red mare to her mother. "This is Garnet."
"We always enjoy meeting someone out here," Rainbow Star smiled. "It is kind of isolated living so far from town. I hope the children haven't been bothering you."
"No. Not at all. I was just about to douse this fire and move on."
"I can help," volunteered Freckles as he went for scoops of pebbles and sand to smother the flames.
"Me, too." Tasha joined in heartily.
"So you live near here," Garnet asked of Rainbow Star.
"Just over that hill. The kids wanted to walk out in the frost; they said it looked like a fairyland."
"It was a pretty morning."
Rainbow Star eyed Garnet curiously. "Do you mind my asking what you are doing out here all by yourself?"
"Other than trespassing?" smiled Garnet. "I was traveling and got caught in the middle of nowhere when darkness fell; I happened to see that old barn across the meadow and sheltered there." A little discrepancy did not bother Garnet.
"You spent the night in that wreck?" Rainbow Star giggled. "Did you meet the tenant owl?"
"He was willing to share."
Rainbow Star realized something. "Did you have any breakfast?"
"No, but I don't often eat breakfast."
"Mommy says breakfast is important," asserted Freckles. "Mommy, can I have some more breakfast?"
"Garnet, why don't you come home with us; these guys are all going to be starved by then, and I can fix you something, too."
"That would be too much trouble," replied Garnet, but Freckles had already made his own decision on the matter. He picked up her backpack and shawl and began trekking back down the river.
"I'll show you our house," he stated decisively. Rainbow Star laughed, and Garnet could do little more than follow the small guide.
* * *
The house was a meandering style that blended in with its surroundings so that until one became conscious of it, it appeared to be only more of the brown trees and bushes that spread up the hillside that backed the structure. A stone chimney reared up along one side with wisps of smoke rising lazily. A split-rail fence hemmed in a patch of lawn while garden plots spilled over the area that spread beyond the house. A drab barn sat further along the hillside, a flock of goats and some stray chickens resting within their confine.
Freckles and Tasha raced for home when they grew nearer to its welcoming tow, and several fat and contented felines raised themselves lethargically from the warm sunbeams that soaked into a stone patio outside the front door. Garnet was reminded of a fairytale setting and half expected a gnome to trip across the dried up grass on his way to the wood stack.
"We started out with four rooms, and my husband has added one more when each of the foals was born," explained Rainbow Star of the eclectic construction. "It's rugged, but comfortable."
"It's charming!" Garnet approved. "It's perfect for the location."
Freckles waited impatiently by the open door, allowing no time for Garnet to further explore the outside. The cats wound their way inside the house between the legs of the ponies and took their places expectantly near the kitchen table. Rainbow Star laid the baby in his cradle, and Tasha set out plates and utensils on the wooden trestle table that dominated the center of the room.
"You sit down," Freckles ordered the visitor while indicating a sturdy chair at one end; he climbed up onto one of the benches that skirted either side. "What do you want to eat?"
Rainbow Star came across the room and patted her son on his head. "Our menu this morning consists of scrambled eggs and biscuits," she said apologetically, "and applesauce."
"Lots of applesauce," Tasha concurred, rolling her eyes.
"It was a good year for apples," Freckles related.
Garnet grinned. "It sounds great. And what can I do to help?"
Soon the kitchen was bustling with the activities of meal preparation and the banter of the two siblings who busied themselves between running errands and playing with the cats. One of these, a long-haired gray beast, took a concentrated interest in Garnet and followed her hoofsteps like a shadow; another, white as new-fallen snow, frisked back and forth across the floor chasing a catnip ball. Garnet found that silence and order were not virtues of this household and wondered how the baby could sleep.
The food, casually prepared, was delicious. Garnet found that she was very hungry indeed, and the foals teased her about her appetite. The red mare laughed along with them and found herself feeling right at home among these unexpected friends. The farthest thing from her mind was where she would go from here when the meal was finished; she simply enjoyed the companionship of Rainbow Star and her children while the opportunity was before her.
Garnet learned that Pepper-- husband and father-- was away, working to make some extra money to tide the family over the winter; he had left as soon as the crops had been harvested and would not return until Christmas. Rainbow Star made and sold natural crafts; when she had enough projects finished to make it worthwhile, she carted them to the nearest bazaar and set up shop until her wares were gone. She took Garnet on a tour of the basement storeroom that was lined with shelving groaning under its load of canned vegetables and fruits, jams and jellies, soups and stews.
One of the rooms of the main house was devoted to Rainbow Star's craft; beams across the ceiling were covered in flower bouquets drying for future use in her projects. Pine cones, milk weed pods, grape vines, gourds... the variety was endless in the materials hanging or piled around the edges of the space. Seasonal ribbons and bows cluttered the rack over the workbench; finished wreaths and arrangements stood waiting near the door. The colors, smells, and textures besieged Garnet's senses, and it was a relief to finally leave the atmosphere of holiday extravagance and return to the ordinary kitchen.
"I've got a huge order to get done for a fair in Dream Valley," Rainbow Star admitted when the two mares were standing over the sink with the dirty dishes. "I just can't get the time to accomplish much with Palette; he's fussy so much of the time. Freckles and Tasha were never like that, at least not very often."
"He's been good from what I've seen of him."
"He's being on his best behavior. Trust me, that little sweetheart can run me ragged in the course of a normal day. Tasha and Freckles try to help, but Palette expects me to be there for him." Rainbow Star smiled. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't be complaining. Did you think the applesauce was sweet enough?"
It was only when the dishes were done and there was no more reason to infringe on the hospitality of this family of nature that Garnet realized that she did not want to move on. With all her heart, she craved stability like this; she was tired of the constant change of address, the never-ending watching over her shoulder, the sizing up of everyone she met. Seeing Rainbow Star surrounded by her little ones made it all very simple; but there was a long road ahead of Garnet before she could find these things for herself.
The red mare forced herself to move toward the backpack where Freckles had dropped it inside the doorway. She was reaching to pick it up when the baby started to cry, and Rainbow Star went to tend to his needs. Freckles came to Garnet and put his hoof on her foreleg as if sensing her disheartened spirit. Not a word had been said about her plans, but he seemed to know that her future was nebulous. "Where are you going to go?"
"It's a big world out there; I'll find someplace," she said softly. She smiled at the colt who seemed to regret her leaving. "I'll be fine." She slung the backpack over her shoulder and moved toward the door.
"Garnet!" Rainbow Star called, the foal now in her forelegs. "I was wondering... well, I just had an idea... but... no, never mind."
"What did you want to ask me?"
"It was only wishful thinking on my part. I thought maybe you could stay with us for awhile and help with things around here if you didn't have any commitments anywhere else; but I'm sure you have a job and a family of your own, so I shouldn't even ask such a thing of you; it's just that sometimes I don't know what I'm going to do." The mare looked down at her little foal. "But we'll make it; we always do."
Letting the torrent of words sink in, Garnet took her time in replying. "Rainbow Star, I'd love to stay here, at least until... until I sort some things out in my mind."
Rainbow Star's face glowed. "You're serious?"
"Yes. Well, that is, as long as Palette takes to me; I never had any younger brothers or sisters, so I haven't had much experience with foals."
"Well, let's find out." She handed the foal to Garnet. "I'll go warm his bottle, and we'll give this a trial run."
As it turned out, little Palette was very satisfied with this new pony in his world; and he responded with his most winning ways. Rainbow Star set to work in her workroom while Garnet cared for the baby and helped Freckles and Tasha with their books. So far from the nearest school, both children studied at home under the guidance of their mother. Garnet found herself enveloped in questions as the children discussed their lessons with her; they found her a gold mine of new stories and a new perspective.
It was evening and the house was snug against the darkness outside before Freckles realized a problem. "Where are you going to sleep, Garnet?"
Rainbow Star had already worked that out. "Tasha will share my room, and Garnet can have Tasha's room all to herself."
That answer seemed to satisfy the colt; he came up to Garnet and said, "If you ever get scared of the dark, just call and I'll be there."
* * *
The new day dawned warmer than the previous one, but the sky was overcast and the morning light was slow in permeating the room where Garnet slept. She had rested comfortably in her new bed; having a purpose in her life for the days ahead had lifted a burden from her shoulders, and she had succumbed to a deep, inner tiredness that took hours to erase.
When she finally became semi-conscious, she knew she was not alone. The cobwebs in her mind were quickly scattered as she sat upright in bed to find Tasha and Freckles peering at her.
"It's still red," Freckles said to his big sister.
"Yes, it is," Tasha agreed.
"What are you talking about?" asked Garnet.
"Of course, it's red," Garnet replied, slightly exasperated.
"Yesterday morning, it was green," Freckles puzzled, "until you washed it."
"We thought maybe it turned green overnight," stated Tasha. "But it didn't."
Rainbow Star had heard voices, and she came into the room. "Children, why are you bothering Garnet before she's even out of bed?"
"We thought her hair would be green," Freckles yawned; and losing interest in his investigation, left the room.
"Green?" asked a puzzled mother. She looked to Tasha for an answer, but the foal only shrugged her shoulders and followed her brother.
Rainbow Star's gaze settled on Garnet. "We'll talk later."
* * *
"..so I had to change my appearance enough that no one would recognize me, but someone did anyway." Garnet was rocking Palette while Rainbow Star was assembling a winter bouquet. The green hair mystery had led to a complete admission of Garnet's life history; and it had been a restorative experience for the red mare, but she was unsure of the reaction of her hostess. "I'll understand if you want me to be on my way after hearing my story."
"Nonsense. You're not getting out of your offer to help that easily."
Garnet smiled. "You aren't afraid I'll walk off with your beautiful wares?"
"I trust you, Garnet. Tasha and Freckles accepted you right away; they are good judges of character. Last spring, a stallion came down the river and stopped to talk to Pepper; the kids were helping their dad out in the fields, but they both came back to the house to tell me that they didn't like that pony; and Pepper came in later saying that the stallion had wanted him to look the other way while he did some illegal trapping. The foals sense things like that." She looked at the sleeping Palette in Garnet's forelegs. "That one hasn't been this content since day one."
"Me neither," Garnet grinned. The little foal was a picture of satisfaction as he slept, his head resting comfortably against Garnet, one of his minuscule hooves clinging to a strand of her hair. It was obvious that he trusted her, too.
"You said you had some decisions to make; I pray that they will be the right ones for you when you see your way clear to make them."
Garnet made no immediate reply. She kissed the sleeping foal softly. "How does anyone know which ones are the right ones?"
* * *
The days soon settled into a routine for Garnet as she cared for Palette, supervised Tasha and Freckles at their studies, and offered her assistance in doing household chores, leaving time for Rainbow Star time to work her creative wonders with her crafts.
Small orders for her projects from neighbors were delivered upon completion, so Garnet would be in charge of the house and foals while Rainbow Star was away, although Freckles assumed a protective role over his siblings and Garnet. The red mare often found herself comparing the dependable little colt with her own brothers just as she had compared them to Wishbone. Her oldest brother had ignored her existence which made him easier to live with than Sable, who openly rejected her childish admiration.
Things had been different for Garnet's new friend in Dream Valley; Chocolate Chip was the oldest sibling in her family, and she and Wishbone had been close throughout their growing-up years. Garnet had listened with compassion to the brown mare's story of loneliness, but the fact of the matter was that Chocolate Chip at least had a brother who was there for her even when her own parents showed no interest. Garnet had no such crutch to lean on.
"Why are you sad?" Freckles had once asked her as she sat rocking Palette.
"I'm not sad," Garnet had responded with a smile.
"Yes, you are," the colt had countered. "I can tell."
Garnet had ruffled his mane and was slow to reply. Why was she sad? The time she spent with the foals and their mother had been for her a respite and a joy; yet she knew the colt was right; underlying her current contentment ran a churning and muddied river that threatened to engulf her. When she left here, and she surely must, the whirlpool would pull her down into its murky depths once more; she would be drawn into the deceit and furtiveness that had become second nature to her.
"I can't stay here forever," Garnet had admitted to Freckles. "I get sad when I think about leaving."
"Then don't go."
Those words had echoed through Garnet's mind over the days that had since passed, and now as she watched Freckles scampering up the hillside amidst the naked trees and rustling leaves, she once more turned her thoughts inward. What was stopping her from getting on with her life? She was used to going it alone; she had certainly faced worse predicaments than her abrupt abandonment of Dream Valley. All she had to do was set out down the road.
But what kind of life would she have? Garnet kicked at the brown and yellow leaves at her hooves. It would be more of the same: establishing a base, getting a job, finding a mark, making a hit, and moving on once more. The mare groaned. Picking up a stick off the ground, she angrily broke it into bits and scattered the pieces around her.
Freckles materialized out of a thicket carrying some acorns, eyeing her critically. "Whatcha mad about?"
"About life," she snapped, pounding her hoof into the tree trunk next to her which only succeeded in causing a sharp pain to shoot through her foreleg. "Ouch!" She cradled the hoof gingerly.
"Are you okay?" asked a worried Freckles. "Let me see." The colt looked over her throbbing appendage and made his determination. "You should soak it in cold water; the river isn't far from here."
Garnet let her diminutive knight lead her to the water's edge and obediently stuck her now puffy hoof into the icy flow. Freckles engaged himself in skipping small, flat stones over the surface of the water. Garnet watched his determined expression with amusement; everything he did, he did with utter concentration and unfeigned delight. Life was a joy every step of the way. How could she capture that innocence again?
"Is it better yet?" Freckles queried.
Pulling the hoof from the water, Garnet found that the swelling had indeed gone down some; she smiled at the colt. "Much better."
"Then we'd better get home, or Tasha will be missing us."
* * *
There was one unhappy result of Rainbow Star's delivering local orders: She ended up with the flu, and it was a relentless one. The first days found her unable to get out of bed; Garnet and the foals nursed her with care, but she was still not back to health when first Tasha, then Freckles, and finally Palette came down with it, too. To add to their misery, Pepper had called to tell them that he was wiped out as well; but on learning that his family was suffering, he informed Garnet that he would come home to help out. Garnet convinced him that it would not be wise for him to travel in his weakened condition, and that she could handle the invalids herself.
Palette was so miserable with the flu that Garnet found most of her time taken up with comforting him; it was a day and night job as the little colt could get no rest. Fortunately for him, Garnet did not come down with the flu herself. "I've been exposed to every flu bug out there," she joked with Rainbow Star when the yellow mare was finally able to spend part of each day on her hooves again.
The day that Palette could finally keep his milk down and fall into a restful slumber was a victory for Garnet; even with him sleeping, however, she hovered over him in anticipation of any need until she finally had to succumb to the call of sleep for herself. Freckles and Tasha, who were over their illness by now, tiptoed through the house, checking on their brother and Garnet at regular intervals and speaking in muted whispers even though the two ponies in their beds would not have stirred from their deep sleep short of a thunder crash.
The flu having run its course allowed the ponies to begin looking forward to the coming holiday.
* * *
Thanksgiving was nearly upon them when Rainbow Star received a call from Pepper that threw the household into a melancholy state once more; the stallion, who had planned on being back with his family by the holiday, had been asked to stay on at his job for another week or two; and Pepper, who had lost several days while sick knew how much the extra jangles would help and had consented. The foals were heart-broken, and Rainbow Star was despondent. Garnet did her best to cheer them up.
"Your sister and her family are coming for Thanksgiving, and you'll be going back to Dream Valley with them to set up shop at the craft fair at the mall. The time will fly by; Pepper will be back before you know it!"
Rainbow Star shook her head. "We've always been together for the holidays; I can't imagine him not being here."
"He'll be here soon enough, and you will have Christmas to look forward to then." Garnet looked at the foals who stood dejectedly in front of the window as if by simply wishing their father home, he would appear on the path to the house. "Freckles. Tasha. You'll have more time to work on your dad's Christmas present."
Having had that suggestion planted in their minds, both foals turned to Garnet with shining eyes. Tasha was working on a counted cross-stitch project that would go into a frame that Freckles was designing. "We can finish it before Dad gets home," Freckles grinned.
"And then hide it really good," smiled Tasha.
As the two foals left the room to settle down to some serious work, Garnet turned to Rainbow Star. "Now let's see you smile."
But the mare could not so easily be appeased. "Pepper has always said that if we moved into town, our lives would be a lot easier; yet none of us want to give up this place. But now it seems to me that if we could be together in town, it would be better than being apart here. Do you understand?"
"I think I do. But I also know it will be hard enough for me to walk away from here."
"Have you decided what you are going to do yet?"
Garnet shook her head. "I don't have a clue."
"Then we both have some serious thinking to do, don't we?" Rainbow Star sighed deeply.
"Why don't you go for a walk," suggested Garnet. "It will help you to put things in perspective."
"Palette will be waking up soon."
"I'm perfectly capable of taking care of Palette." She escorted the mare to the door. "And don't come back until you can smile again."
* * *
The house was filled with activity the day before Thanksgiving as Rainbow Star baked and Garnet cleaned with the help of Freckles and Tasha; even Palette seemed to realize that something special was in the air, and he watched the activity contentedly.
The following day would see the arrival of Rainbow Star's sister, Spring Tidings, and her husband, Shortbread, along with their two children, Pink Tart and Blue Wonder; and preparations were under way to have the house spotless along with enough food to feed a multitude. As the family would be spending Thursday night at the homestead, additional bedding had to be cleaned and organized. There was plenty to do for all concerned.
The afternoon was going fast for the mares, but the children had long since reached their limit of household chores; both were restless for something fun to do, so Rainbow Star set them to work in her craft room to construct a Thanksgiving turkey pair to use as a table centerpiece. Both foals were given pine cones, twigs, and various other components with which to design their work of art-- along with a plentiful supply of glue-- before their mother returned to her kitchen duties.
Garnet continued dusting, vacuuming, and washing windows until the place was glistening; only then did she hunt out the foals who had been quietly at work on their own. As she stepped into the room, she saw a wonderful representation of a proud male turkey sitting on the work table, its dried twig tail spread high. Freckles was cleaning glue off his hooves, and Tasha was standing by the table with a rather pathetic looking pile of pine cones in front of her; her attempt had obviously not gone well.
The foal's gaze went from her failure to Freckles's masterpiece, and she quickly reached out her hooves and picked up the turkey. At that moment, Freckles turned toward her, and seeing her holding his still wet project, called out angrily, "Put that down!"
The sound of his voice frightened his sister; and she jumped, causing some of the tail pieces to drop to the floor. As she hastily attempted to set the turkey back on the table, the head, too, dropped off. The young filly looked at the ruined turkey in dismay.
"Now see what you've done?" Freckles yelled, coming toward his sister with his eyes blazing. "You shouldn't have touched it, you dumb girl!" This uncharacteristic anger directed at her by her brother caused Tasha to run to her mother who had come in to see what was causing the commotion; the foal buried her face against the mare's protective body.
For Garnet, time had slipped back again to the day Sable had discovered her in his room; she had been looking for him, but had found instead a miniature snow globe resting on his desk. The glass globe encased a tiny wolf pack, and the desire to make the white crystals shower down upon the creatures was too much for the young Garnet. She had reached out and gently lifted the globe up and shook it, causing a blizzard around the wolves; she had stared intently at the lilliputian world as it was caught in a sudden snowstorm.
So absorbed was she in the globe that the entrance of Sable was entirely unnoticed... unnoticed until the voice rolled into her consciousness. "What are you doing here? Put that down!"
The trembling red foal had jerked at the enraged current of emotion, and the reaction had sent the snow globe flying; it hit the floor with a sickening crash that sent water and artificial snow in every direction. "Now see what you've done?" Sable had come to her and roughly pushed her toward the door. "You are never to touch my things; do you hear? Never come near my room again!" He had slammed the door shut as Garnet stumbled out. "Dumb girl!" had been his final outburst.
All the feelings of betrayal and sadness washed over Garnet as she looked at Freckles; she saw not the foal but her own brother, and tears welled up in her eyes as she relived the utter emptiness that had settled over her after hearing her brother's wrath directed at her.
For Freckles, the sight of his teacher, care giver, and friend crying was more than the colt could stand. He rushed to her and begged, "Please don't cry, Garnet. I'm sorry I got so mad. Please don't cry!"
The words of apology tore at her heart; she had never heard any penitent word from Sable, and the event had stood between them like a visible stone wall ever since. It was as if Sable had disowned her. But not so with Freckles. "Garnet, please?"
Garnet hugged him to her. "I won't cry any more," she promised as the tears continued to course down her face, "but please go to your sister and tell her, too, that you are sorry."
Freckles did as he was asked and then offered his help in making Tasha's attempt more presentable. Rainbow Star and Garnet left the two of them working companionably side by side. "Do you want to talk?" Rainbow Star asked of the red mare.
"Your family is so special; I wish I had grown up here with you."
"And your family wasn't special?"
Garnet grimaced. "Not in a good way; it didn't allow for a lot of bonding."
"Yet you turned out to be quite special, Garnet; you are a very kind and caring pony-- look how the foals love you. Maybe it's time that you realized your own ability to turn your life around and work for the things you seem to crave."
"Maybe it is not that easy, Rainbow Star."
"Whoever said it would be easy?" the mare responded with a smile. "But it might be worth the effort." She patted Garnet's hoof comfortingly. "And not to change the subject, but there is something I wanted to ask you before tomorrow when the company will make private talk impossible."
"While I'm in Dream Valley, is there anything I can do for you?"
Garnet opened her mouth to say something, then shook her head. "No."
"Who did you care about there? I can ask some discreet questions to find out what's going on in their lives now."
"You will have too much to do without playing detective for me."
"I'll be at the mall, and didn't you say that one of your friends worked there? I could at least look in on her; I wouldn't have to admit to knowing you, just ask some general questions about life in Dream Valley."
"Well, Chocolate Chip works at a place called Bushwoolie Bargain Books; she's a one of a kind pony; you couldn't miss her. And Fern is at the mall, too, at a place called Lemon Treat's Boutique; she's all green and blue and very gracious."
"Is that all?"
"I don't imagine that you would be going to the casino."
"My sister and her husband just might go there occasionally."
Garnet laughed. "Okay then; check up on Wigwam and Butch; Wigwam owns it and Butch manages the place."
"Okay. Butch and Wigwam and...?"
"And..." Garnet began spiritedly; but, after a pause, she ended weakly. "That's all."
"I don't believe you."
"There's..." Garnet's sentence was cut off as Tasha and Freckles ran into the room hoof in hoof.
"Come see the turkeys!" Tasha chirped.
"They look good!" added Freckles.
As the mares followed them, Garnet whispered to herself. There's one more, but what's the use? What does it matter? She knew that even if she could change the course of her life, Petal would stand in her way.
* * *
Thanksgiving came and went in a swirl of activity that began early with the arrival of the ponies from Dream Valley; Garnet was self-conscious at meeting them, fearing that they would somehow or other have learned of her true identity; but no one seemed to notice anything familiar about the red mare.
The news from Dream Valley centered on the flu that had hit that community as well; Spring Tidings had a mild experience with it, but Shortbread and the foals had been very ill; and the flu had reached epidemic proportions in most of Ponyland. Garnet quietly said a prayer that her friends were faring well.
The Thanksgiving meal was an extravaganza of good food with plenty of conversation thrown in; an afternoon hike with the foals, including Pink Tart and Blue Wonder, helped to wear off some of the extra calories. An appropriately sized spruce tree was located and marked so that Pepper would have an easy time in cutting the family's Christmas tree once he was back home. The cousins ran in wild abandon and noisily chattered as they enjoyed each others company in the rustic setting of the woodlands and meadows, brown and lifeless except for the intermittent evergreen.
The day ended with a gathering around the fireplace and piles of popcorn before everyone found a niche to spend the night; the arrival of the morning brought more intense bustle and commotion as breakfast was served and everyone except Garnet packed their backpacks for the trip back to Dream Valley.
Rainbow Star had accumulated a fair amount of articles to sell at the Dream Valley Mall, "Many more than if Garnet had not been here," she admitted. She and the children were going to accompany her sister and family to the city where they would spend the next few days. The extra hooves were put to good use in carting all the crafts as well as those essentials needed for the nights away from home.
Freckles and Tasha begged Garnet to come with them; but she held firm, knowing that she would be putting herself in a precarious position to come back into a town where the police chief was already aware of her background. Wigwam had orchestrated her escape once, but he might not be able to contrive those results again. She hugged the foals and kissed Palette fondly, admonishing him not to forget her.
Everything having been readied, the crew was finally prepared to start off. Pulling Garnet off to the side, Rainbow Star admonished her to keep an eye open for the Ponyland Parcel Service deliverer as Pepper had arranged to have some of the foals' Christmas gifts shipped rather than handling them all himself. "You'll need to sign for them, Garnet, and stash them under my bed." She hugged the mare one last time, and ran to meet up with the rest of the group who had begun to meander off down the path.
Garnet stood and waved until the ponies had passed around the curvature of the hill; then she returned to the house to clean the kitchen and straighten up the rest of the house. When that was done, she dropped onto the couch; only then did she realize the intense quiet and loneliness of the place without the foals' laughter and Rainbow Star's lilting voice. The cats, too, sensed their abandonment and came to cuddle close to the red mare.
Grabbing a volume from the bountiful bookshelf, Garnet made herself comfortable and lost herself in a fantasy world that was far removed from her own problems. She had four days to concentrate undisturbed on her future; for the moment, she would escape that task.
* * *
Monday dawned clear and crisp following a weekend of cold rain; and after a light lunch, Garnet was ready to get back outside. Her daily schedule included feeding the chickens that roosted in the barn, and she always took care of that chore at the break of day along with milking the goats. She had refused to take part in that activity when she had first arrived; but Freckles had shown her how gentle the creatures were, and she had lost most of her fear; yet both he and Tasha had laughed hysterically at her trepidation the first time she had attempted the milking on her own. They would never let her live that experience down.
Now she was out for the sheer joy of being free. She had come to relish the solitude once the initial isolation of being the only pony for miles around had worn off. The days spent alone had passed quickly for Garnet. She breathed deeply of the fresh wintry air and began a walk toward the river where the sunlight seemed stronger as it reflected off the deep blue water.
As she followed the course of the waterway, Garnet took time to evaluate her present position once more; as often as she decided what her next step would be-- which amounted to where she could safely go to perpetrate yet another shady venture-- her thoughts would turn to her months in Dream Valley. She had enjoyed her work at the casino and she had come to cherish the friendships of the ponies who had touched her life there. Never before had she felt so fulfilled in what she was doing as when she was reporting to Wigwam and Butch about the affairs of the gaming house; never before had she felt so cared about as when she was in the company of Chocolate Chip and Fern. Her achievements there had brought her more happiness than she had ever experienced before; and, always at the fringe of her thoughts, hung the vision of a rose-red stallion.
This is where her resolve weakened. More than anything else, she wanted to go back to Dream Valley and take up where her life had left off; yet that was out of the question, which left her with only the original choice of continuing the life that her parents had prepared her for. Unless... there was one possibility that had been churning in her mind since she had come to stay with Rainbow Star. What if she were to turn herself in to the police in Binksville where she had heisted the jewelry? She still had the jewelry; she did well enough for herself in the jobs that she had picked up since then to maintain a comfortable style of living. If she returned the stolen goods, would the charges be dropped against her? Or would Chief Bastian and Sundial be unwilling to look with forgiveness on such an effort on her part? Garnet could not be sure. And in not knowing, she could not bring herself to opt for that choice.
Garnet's wanderings had led her away from the river and up the gradual incline of the hill where she meandered through the tall trees that stood barren, her hooves rustling through the deep accumulation of the fallen leaves of the past season. When she reached the top of the hill, she looked down over the valley through the tangle of branches that surrounded her.
Habitually, Garnet made note of landmarks and paths that were visible from this high spot, and she soon noted a far-away movement on the path that swung along the bottom of the hill and wound its way eventually to the homestead of Rainbow Star and Pepper. Standing perfectly still in her protective cover, Garnet watched intently as the dark dot came ever closer and gradually conformed itself into the shape of a pony and a cart.
Partially blanketed in the shadows of the trees that abutted the path, the pony remained a mystery to Garnet; but once he was clear and in the full sunshine, the mare gasped-- for she recognized who this interloper was. "Why him, of all the pony deliverers in Ponyland?" she muttered under her breath. Watching only long enough to verify her discovery, Garnet turned and blended into the silent woodland with long-practiced stealth.
* * *
The cinnamon-colored stallion with the delivery cart breathed a sign of relief when he finally saw the house he was looking for; it had been a long trip from town and he had wondered several times if he had missed a turn. He had only signed on with the local Ponyland Parcel Service several weeks back after transferring from Millville, and this was new territory for him.
Grateful for the sunny day, the stallion whistled merrily now that he knew he was on the right track. He hated to think of the snowy days that would invariably be upon the land soon; that was the only thing that he disliked about his job; the snow made travel difficult at best. He remembered an especially heavy snow early in the year that had slowed him down, and in thinking of that blustery day, he also remembered the filly that had preceded him on the path-- the red mare that had played him for a fool. Rusty grimaced at the thought; he had been duped because he had allowed himself to be dazzled by a pretty face.
Coming nearer to the rambling house, Rusty parked his cart at the gate and picked up the largest package of the three to be delivered into the care of Rainbow Star; the name evoked an idealized vision of yet another pretty face, and Rusty continued his whistling as he went up the walk and knocked on the front door. As he waited, the stallion looked across the well-kept lawn; even at this dreary time of year, he knew that the setting would be lovely when the life of spring returned to the land.
After a reasonable amount of time, Rusty once more turned to the door and began to knock a second time. He was in the middle of rapping his hoof against the wooden portal when the door began ever so slightly to move. Dropping his hoof, Rusty waited for his first glimpse of Rainbow Star; simply from the name, he knew she would have a colorful rainbow mane; but what over-all color? Did the "Star" indicate yellow, perhaps?
As the aperture widened, Rusty finally got a look at the mare, and she was not what he expected. He was so surprised that he took a step backward.
The pony who had opened the door to him was an old, seasoned mare with sunken, hollow cheeks and wrinkles galore. Her visage was a pasty white, and she had covered her cold body with a heavy black shawl that blanketed everything except her face. Her eyelids drooped, and she was barely able to stand; she gripped the door frame with all the strength she had.
Regaining his composure, Rusty greeted the old pony cheerfully; he knew that for some of these elderly citizens, their only window on the world was the mail and parcel deliverers; and he made it a point to brighten their day. "This is a beautiful place you've got, ma'am. I've got some packages for you today. Where would you like me to set them?"
With a cautious glance at the package, the feeble mare slowly opened the door wider and pointed shakily to a spot in front of the couch.
"There are three of them all together; I'll get the rest of them in the house in a jiffy." Setting the first down, he commented on the decor. "Wow! That's some fireplace; bet it feels good on those cold, windy days of winter."
The second package came in with the remark that clouds were beginning to form in the west which most likely signaled a change in weather; he would not be surprised to see the temperatures drop soon. By the time he had the third package on the floor, he remembered the needed signature. Another trip to the cart brought him back with a clipboard in hoof.
"Ma'am, I'll need your signature." He held out the clipboard, but the mare only stared at it dumbly. Rusty tried again. "The packages were insured, Ma'am, and I need proof that they were delivered to the proper address." He tapped his hoof on the appropriate line, and the mare seemed to realize the need to respond; but she tilted her head and tapped her hidden ear with a cloak covered hoof. "Oh, a little short on hearing," Rusty muttered. Louder this time, he nearly yelled, "Your signature! I need your signature on the line!"
His message finally sinking in, the mare lifted one shaky hoof, revealing only enough to grasp the pro-offered pen and signing her name in the trembling, faint writing of one who has lived a long and hard life. Whether it said "Rainbow Star" or "Misty Morning", Rusty could not say with any certitude; the scratching could be anything. When he took the pen back from her, the mare dropped her hoof to the floor as if the effort had nearly exhausted her.
"Well, thanks, ma'am!" Rusty stated at the top of his lungs. "I hope you have a lovely day!"
For just the briefest of moments, the mare lifted her listless eyes to look directly at Rusty, and the stallion was dazzled by the sparkle in the violet orbs that met his own. Whoever she was, this mare must have been a beauty in her day. Rusty tipped his hat to her and retreated to his cart and began the return journey back to town.
He had not gotten far when he turned to look back at the lonely house; the door had closed out the world again. But the stallion had an unexplained sense of deja vu. There was something... something that he could not quite put his hoof on.
* * *
As soon as the door was secure, Garnet flung off the shawl and threw herself on the couch; she did not know whether to laugh or cry, but the sense of relief that filled her caused the laughter to win out. The cats sat on the floor in front of her, their ears twitching to the sounds of merry mirth. Only when the laughter prompted tears to spill over her hurriedly applied makeup did the mare get up and take care of the business of washing off the pasty substance that had changed her appearance long enough to fool Rusty once again.
When she was cleaned up and back to her old self and had hidden the packages under the bed as Rainbow Star had requested, Garnet felt a tinge of regret. Should she have compromised her identity by flashing that one open glance at the stallion? Looking back, she wished she had not done it; but at the time, it had served her self-esteem well. Garnet shrugged her shoulders; what was done, was done.
It was only later that the incident began to haunt her mercilessly for she realized how quickly she had resorted to her clandestine habits. All of her day-dreams about turning her life around lay shattered before her; how could she live an upright life if she lowered herself to the covert tendencies that had been ingrained in her since she was a foal? Now, looking back at the afternoon's episode with Rusty, she could only feel mortification for having taken the easy way out. She was contemplating packing her backpack and beating a hasty retreat when she realized that action would also be a cop-out.
All negative thoughts disappeared, however, when she heard Freckles' voice coming from the lane. Looking at the clock, she saw that the day was winding down, and Rainbow Star had said that she and the foals would be home before dark. Garnet looked in a mirror to make sure that all traces of her subterfuge were washed away and only then went to meet her surrogate family.
The foals were tired from their event-filled days spent in Dream Valley followed by the long walk home, but Freckles and Tasha excitedly gave her small gifts that they had purchased while in the city. Freckles had gotten her a new brush to replace the one ruined in the fire on her first day with them, and Tasha gave her a matching mirror.
Rainbow Star was pleased with the results of her sales and was bubbling over with facts and figures for Garnet when Palette squirmed in his mother's grasp, reaching tiny hooves in the red mare's direction. That simple motion touched the mare's heart; she scooped the foal into her forelegs and hugged him close while a tear trickled silently down her face.
"You two go unpack your satchels and get washed up for supper," Rainbow Star ordered Tasha and Freckles; when they were out of the room, she led Garnet to the rocking chair and she herself pulled up a footstool to sit in front of her. Only then did she question her.
"What happened, Garnet. You look like something is wrong."
"Everything is wrong," the red mare admitted. She went on to tell Rainbow Star about her adventure with the package deliverer and was shocked when Rainbow Star found it funny.
"I wish I could have been here for that," the mare choked amidst her laughter. "I suppose you wouldn't dress up in your disguise for us?"
"It isn't funny!" Garnet said. "I hid behind a mask so that I wouldn't have to face the reality. I can't go on living like this."
Realizing that Garnet was serious, Rainbow Star assumed a motherly stance. "You did what you had to do, Garnet. It wouldn't have been wise to reveal your identity to someone who could harm you before you've made the decision you know you have to make."
Garnet looked at her closely. "What do you mean?"
"You can't go on hiding, and you can't go on conning ponies. You have to set your past record straight and get on with the life you want in Dream Valley."
"It's just that simple?" Garnet smirked.
"I told you before, it may not be easy; but it is necessary. Garnet, you've got too much goodness about you to throw it away just to prove that you can beat your parents at their own game. Use your intelligence in a positive way; choose your own path."
"So you think that's what I've been doing, proving to my parents that I can be as good as Sable?"
"Oh, Garnet, I don't know! I just know that the pony who has helped me for the last month is not the same pony who would rob a museum."
Garnet turned her face away. "I've been happy here... fulfilled. I envy you your home and your family." Returning her gaze to Rainbow Star, she stated simply, "I'm not sure I'm strong enough to do what I have to do."
Patting her hoof reassuringly, Rainbow Star smiled. "You can do anything you want to, if you want it badly enough."
Tasha returned to the room lugging with her a box that contained her My Little People dolls. "I got a new dolly!" She ran to a package sitting on the couch and pulled out the latest addition to her collection. "Isn't she pretty, Garnet?" The young filly held the doll up to Garnet and waited for an answer.
"She's beautiful," the mare agreed.
Taking the doll to the box, she proceeded to introduce her to the previous acquisitions, and Rainbow Star related an incident involved with purchasing that particular figure. "I took Tasha and Freckles shopping at Pony-Mart and told them they could each get one thing. Freckles picked out a transformable robot while Tasha stared at the dolls, trying to decide which one she wanted. She finally decided; but Freckles, who was getting bored by this time, had noticed that on the top of the shelf were more dolls. He pointed that out to Tasha, and she decided that the one in a blue dress was prettier. I had to hunt up an employee to get a ladder and climb up to fetch that particular doll; and after he came down with it and handed it to Tasha, she stuck her nose up and said she didn't want that one after all; she liked her first choice best."
Garnet laughed. "It's a filly's right to change her mind, after all."
"I was so embarrassed, though." She giggled. "The young stallion had been so kind; and he didn't even bat an eye when Tasha rejected his help. He was cute, too, with his golden hair." Rainbow Star got up to peer over Tasha's shoulder at the dolls.
"Chocolate Chip's brother works at Pony-Mart, and he has golden hair," Garnet said tentatively, feeling a blush rise across her cheeks.
"He had a wishbone symbol," Rainbow Star said, looking back at Garnet curiously and wondering about the tremor in her voice.
"That's Wishbone, all right." Garnet got up quickly and busied herself straightening the pile of mail that sat on the side table.
"I saw Chocolate Chip, too. Spring Tidings watched my display for me while I went around to all the stores."
"Did she talk you into buying a book?"
"Actually, yes. Freckles is becoming interested in the Native Pony culture, and she recommended a book of Native Pony tales."
"Figures," Garnet grinned.
"Yes, it was only later that I noticed that the author was Wigwam. Spring Tidings and Shortcake took me to the casino Saturday night; we had a blast."
"So everything was okay with my friends? What about Fern?"
"From what I saw, Chocolate Chip and Wigwam were doing just fine; but when I stopped at Lemon Treats' Boutique, I didn't see anyone who matched your description of Fern."
"Maybe she had a class."
"I actually talked to the clerk who was there; I told her I had been in several weeks earlier and had talked to a different employee about a hat I was interested in. She said that was probably Fern, but she was out of town; and she didn't know when she would be back."
Garnet frowned. "Out of town? I wonder where she went... I bet Toby isn't too happy about it!"
"I didn't want to sound too nosey, so I didn't pursue the subject. But several other mares who had come and overheard our conversation began gossiping about Fern and this Dr. Toby. They were saying that Toby has never had an easy time of it with affairs of the heart; and they wouldn't be surprised if Fern never came back."
"Fern loved Toby, and he loved her," refuted Garnet.