The horse’s tongue grazes the back of my neck. It’s soft, slick, with muscle behind it. But Jupiter’s always liked to lick the sweat off me on summer days. Kurt says Jupiter licks him, too. Says it’s because Jupiter considers us part of his herd, or he’s asserting his dominance over us or something. But I just think he’s sweating too much and needs the salt. I guess that makes me his salt-lick-slash-shit-shoveler.
I bend my knees a little, pitch the shovel forward across the stall floor, and walk to the wall. Jupiter waits a second before he follows. I hear him scoot forward, and then his tongue is under my ear, making me jump a little. I tell him “Hee-ahh,” all long and slow like the month of August. Jupiter obeys by keeping his tongue to himself and letting me finish mucking his stall. That’s when I hear a horse—probably Hester—at the other end of the barn let out a low hoot, a stomp like a two-step, and then the melody of a conversation.
“Sullivan’s all talk.” I recognize the machismo right away; I’d recognize it underwater and in space. “He won’t really tell your mama. He probably wants to read it as much as you do.”
“I don’t know. He’s not that into end-of-the-world stuff.” My brother’s girlfriend’s voice, Serena. She’s the only one I know that can make two syllables out of the word ‘world.’
“But he is into knowing what everyone in class is talking about. Trust me. He wants to read it, too. And that’s too bad because you’re going to give it to me when you’re done, aren’t you?” I can only assume my brother tickles because Serena laughs and nothing he said was funny. I hear a quick grunt and then the unmistakable click of a kiss breaking apart. “Does that convince you?”
I can’t hear Serena’s answer; she’s all whispers. It takes two or three of their clicks for me to think to tell them I’m here. But then I get a better idea.
As quiet as I can I pull the latch on Jupiter’s stall—its creak blends into the other barn noises: whinnies and water pumps and bats in the rafters preparing for their evening chase. Kurt and Serena are still talking softly. I look at the horse standing a few feet away, twitching its ears at me. It’s the one time I can remember when he doesn’t charge me after I open the door. I offer up my arm, and he starts licking. Slowly, slowly, I inch Jupiter out of his stall and into the thoroughfare. Once he’s out it’s like someone’s riding him, I guess because he wants washing. He walks right onto the thick mats that line the shower stall. A surprised shout echoes off the roof.
“Damn it, Jupe, stop licking me for a minute.”
“How’d he get in here?” Serena says, sounding unphased.
“Hold that thought. I’m just going to put him back.” When Kurt turns the corner, flushed and missing his shirt, I make sure I’m giving him my widest grin. He skips right into a run. Then it’s my laughter bouncing around the barn, and I’m hiding in the orchard out of breath wondering how long I should wait before I go back in.