“Nickel Pony,” by Sarah Diemer
As a little girl, Helena thought the nickel pony outside of the dollar store gave her good luck: then it went away, and took her good luck with it. Now, when her world is slowly crumbling again, a girl in an arcade brings back unexpected magic.
(photo by Sha Sha Chu)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Sarah Diemer
It’s kind of stupid, you know, but I really loved that heap of metal. I never really knew how much until it was gone.
Growing up, there was this dollar store in my town, next to the video rental place. We’d go on Friday nights and rent a Harrison Ford movie (Mom totally had a thing for Harrison Ford), and then I’d beg and throw a tantrum and be generally Very Stupid until my parents gave me a nickel and took me next door to the dollar store. And then I’d get to ride Thunder.
Thunder was a metal horse—the kind you put coins in, and it’ll buck in place for about thirty seconds while you ride it. It was ancient the way that bridges and pin-up girls and Marilyn Monroe are ancient, and it vibrated in place more than bucked, but I’d pop in that nickel and sit on Thunder’s back, my hands slick on the metal (my fingers would taste like pennies for hours after), and for thirty seconds my life would melt away and I was a cowgirl hero and it was just me and Thunder and the open range of possibilities.
I know it’s stupid. But when I was on Thunder, my parents weren’t fighting (or, if they were, I could ignore them), and it was this tiny bit of peacefulness because nothing else was peaceful. I began to associate Thunder as something outside of my effed up life. Something rare and precious because it asked nothing of me but a nickel.
The week they took him out of the dollar store and moved in a row of unappetizing bubblegum machines, my parents told me that they didn’t love each other anymore and that they wanted a divorce.
It had nothing to do with Thunder leaving, my parents’ divorce.
But secretly, I knew that once he’d left, my good luck ran out.
“I hate you,” my little brother tells me helpfully. I squeeze his hand a little harder than necessary and steer him out of the oncoming car’s way, saving him, I might add, from certain doom. Of course he doesn’t give a shit that big sister saved him. He’s still pouting about the fact that we’re not going to walk the eighteen blocks to the stupid toy store just so he can see if the new Marvel action figures are in.
“Feeling’s mutual,” I mutter to him, lifting him up on the sidewalk and squatting down next to him. “Now you listen, and actually listen this time, you stupid amoeba,” I mutter to him through a pasted-on smile, a benefit for the passerbys. “Mom said she was going to be at the doctor’s for an hour. That is not enough time to walk all the way to the toy store and back in the new snow, and if you ask me one more time…”
He’s chewing his gum so ferociously, he looks like a bubblegum processing machine. “I’m going to tell Mom you were mean to me.”
“Who’s she gonna believe, chump? You or me?” I take his hand again and tug him along the sidewalk. A well-dressed older woman practically stares at me as we walk past, judgment written all over her face. Only the seventeenth person today. “And if one more person starts to talk to me about being an unwed teen parent, I swear to God, so help me…”
“It’s not my fault you look like an episode of Judge Judy waiting to happen,” says Brandon, blowing a small blue bubble. “If you drag me into that bookstore, you can expect me to have a tantrum on the floor.”
“You’re seven. Well past the tantrum age,” I grit my teeth, angling closer to the bookstore, the one shining moment of my day.
“I’ll do it,” he says, and that’s when I pause. I stare down at him, at his little screwed-up, pouting face, at his ferociously working jaw masticating the hell out of that innocent piece of bubblegum.
And behind all of that is fear.
Because he’s just as scared about Mom, too.
I am not going to cry, because if I cry, Brandon’s just going to explode, blue gum and tears everywhere, and that’ll make me cry more. My Kryptonite equals Brandon’s tears. So I rub at my face really hard, breathe out and open my eyes again.
We’re in front of the arcade.
“…Would you like to play skeeball?” I ask, brows furrowed, because I don’t know if he even knows what skeeball is (the only reason I know being my ex-girlfriend took me here on our first date because she thought it’d be romantic because it’s ironic or something), but I guess the flashing lights and weird robot sounds of the games are kind of like crack to kids because my brother’s eyes get all round and he practically drags me into the arcade, the door banging behind us, shutting out the cold air and any possibility I had of going to the bookstore today.
(But my brother’s forgotten, for half a second, about Mom. So it’s okay.)
“Helena, look!” he practically squeals, pointing to an obviously possessed clown game that flashes in different patterns of light. The thing’s seven feet tall, so that’s why I assume he’s so excited about it, but then he drags me past it, and we’re standing in front of an X-Men pinball machine that also flashes in different patterns of light. Probably subliminal messaging to drink more soda. He paws at the thing and gazes up at me beseechingly while I fish in my pockets for quarters. I find some, and then he’s playing the game, eyes round and he’s laughing he’s so happy, and I’m so relieved, I can only slump against the wall. His smile is infectious, though, and after a minute, I’m grinning, too.
And that’s when I see him.
He stands in a corner, unplugged and dusty. His front hooves are dented in, and someone spraypainted an indecipherable hieroglyph on his back, but it’s him, I know it, I’d know him anywhere. I walk up to him, tracing my fingers over his saddle, his reins, his bridle, crouching down in front of him, spellbound.
“Thunder,” I whisper, and stupidly, stupidly, there are tears in my eyes.
“Isn’t he beautiful?”
I stand up so quickly, I almost fall over. A girl leans over the counter where you trade in your tickets. She wears a pouch stuffed with ticket stubs, and a plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeves, her bleach-blonde hair spiked into a slightly-wilting Mohawk. But it’s her smile I really notice, everything else falling away. It’s a smile that imprints, indelibly, into you. When I blink, I still see it, so beautiful it has a gravity.
“Beautiful…” I find myself repeating, and then blush, because I wasn’t talking about Thunder. I have my hand on his saddle, and I know my fingers are going to taste like pennies, if I lick them.
“We just got him. He was in a junk shop, but Jim—he’s the arcade owner—found him and thought he could fix him up. Get him working again. I’ve never seen such a handsome nickel pony, personally. They’re usually super trashed.”
“Nickel pony?” Wow, am I articulate today.
“That’s what this old boy is. A nickel pony. Because you put in a nickel…?” She comes out from around the corner and walks up to me. It’s the oldest trick in the book, her reaching behind my ear and pulling out a shiny new nickel, but it’s the oldest trick in the book because it works, my heart finding all sorts of new, fast-paced rhythms to work with as she stands close to me, mouth curled up at the edges in a smile so pretty it should be illegal, holding up a shining coin.
She brushes against me as she leans over and puts the nickel into its slot. “Ready?” she asks, head tilted, and I stare at her for a long moment before I realize she wants me—me, super-still-growing-and-so-gangly-I-look-like-a-puppet-me—to get up on Thunder.
“Um,” I say, and then because I want to so badly, it hurts, I climb up on him anyway. I put my feet in their ballet flats into the little stirrups, and she lets the nickel go, and then Thunder starts vibrating. But he doesn’t vibrate, really—he moves up and down and forward and back, like he used to, back when I first started riding him. The girl backs up, surveying us, Thunder and me, with her hands on her hips, and she’s grinning hugely, and I guess I am, too, because I’m riding my nickel pony again, and I don’t care how stupid I look or how stupid this is.
For the first time in a very, very long time…I’m happy.
Eventually, Thunder stops—thirty seconds can’t last forever—and I hop off, the euphoria washing away to an especially awkward embarrassment. “Thanks,” I tell her, ducking my head, but she laughs a little, leans against the counter.
“Don’t mention it,” she promises. “I thought you saw something special in him, too. And he is. Special, I mean.” She leans forward now, one eyebrow raised.
“Yes,” I whisper, swallowing, and then Brandon’s there, tugging on my arm, asking me what time it is, and I glance at my watch, and crap, crap, crap, Mom’s appointment must have wrapped up ten minutes ago, and I left my cell phone at home, and she’s going to kill me or think we were kidnapped. Or both.
“Come back soon. Promise?” asks the girl, and I nod as Brandon drags me past her, and the girl’s grinning to herself, humming something I can’t recognize as she straightens the stuffed animals hanging over her head.
As we leave the arcade, I feel so cold all of a sudden, a shiver of delight moving through me. Thunder…hadn’t he been unplugged?
Mom’s waiting for us at the entrance to the clinic. She doesn’t look tired, and she always looks tired. She hugs Brandon first, and she’s not giving me hell, and when she hugs me close, squeezing me tight, she whispers in my ear: “they’re negative. They came back negative. Finally.”
I’m crying, pressing my nose against her shoulder, trying to figure out when I can go back to the arcade. Not just for Thunder.
No matter what, my good luck’s back.
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Sarah Diemer is an award-winning author of lesbian young adult (YA), speculative fiction. Her debut novel, The Dark Wife, the YA, lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award (first two chapters of the audiobook). She writes her lesbian adult fiction under the pen name Elora Bishop, including the Sappho’s Fables: Lesbian Fairy Tales series, which she co-writes with her wife, author Jennifer Diemer.
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