Summer Short Story Award 2nd Place: “Broken Animals” by Aurora Stone Mehlman

April 1, 2024

“‘Broken Animals’ begins with a scene of stampeding wild mustangs that is so vividly described I felt my pulse quicken with the rhythm of its phrases—“a roan, a painted, a dun headwind.” This story might be between Caroline and her troubled son, Hector, or it might be between Caroline and a wounded warrior with prosthetic elbows, with whom Caroline enters into a moment of hard-earned intimacy. And it is intimacy that this story pursues, even as its broken humans seek an adventure that is both unlikely and beautiful.” — Guest Judge Jai Chakrabarti


Caroline balanced on top of the highest rail of the paddock fence watching for the wild horses. The herd was late. Wind raked the Iowa prairie and pelted the paddock, shuttle vans, cars, and onlookers with fine particles of dust, dirt, and old bone smelling of powdery mildew. Earlier, Caroline’s scar-riddled thirteen-year-old, Hector, had, along with the other volunteers, set up the disability access ramps so that all the vets who wanted could watch the stampede and now the bleachers were crowded with survivors.

Coordinators for the wounded veterans group sat together. The vets and their families finished off the brown-bagged sandwiches and oreos. Volunteers collected lunch trash into clear bags that flipped and rolled like jellyfish from the gusts. After Hector helped put away coolers, he sought Caroline out, climbing the rail to sit beside her. Above them, clouds the color of blued steel accelerated west for a hundred visible miles, maybe a thousand, it was impossible to tell for the flatness. Her eyes stung from the dust and the near-sleepless night in the motel and from the long drive from Fargo. Where were the horses? Maybe there were no horses; maybe the mustangs were a myth.

Just then, from the top row of the bleachers, a cry rang out. A veteran’s child yelled, look! There was nothing to see but billowing grass like flicked bed sheets. Caroline narrowed her eyes and scanned the land. Suddenly, the wild horses erupted from a hidden streambed. The animals spread across the silver prairie, racing toward the paddock. A roan, a painted, a dun headwind. Ribbons of grit trailed them. Caroline grabbed Hector’s arm, steadying herself, and sensed the horses accelerating in his pulse. She was starved for that pulse, wolf-like, smelling for it on him, watching for the carotid flicker at his neck. His nostrils quivered. Reflected in his eyeball, Caroline saw the bend in the earth.

On came the herd, their distinct faces outracing their heads, their clouds of legs lashing the ground. The vibration frightened Caroline and chattered her teeth and pumped at her chest. Cowboys and their speckled dogs galloped the fringe.

Beams bucked with the tremor of hoofbeats. The horses pushed an ionized, prehistoric wind ahead of them, as if they came from salty, depthless trenches. There was a small open gate in the paddock fence where two cowboys clung to the fencing, waiting to spook the horse inside, but Caroline was sure the animals would never concede to being penned that easily, that a herd so big could trample the rickety graying wood she sat on in moments, destroying the circular corral and the bleachers too. None of this could possibly hold that momentum.

Now the herd was seconds away from the ring. They did not slow or form a line, they rushed for the rails. At the last moment, when even the toughest Purple Hearts flinched, the herd exploded into the railing. Dust clouds overtook the fencing and the cowboys. As if the animals had hit an electric fence, and not wood that was little but symbolic, they veered back into themselves in a percussive undertow.  At the rear, the cowboys converged on the horses’ hocks and flushed them into the gate. Horses filled the ring smoothly as poured water and began to reform and circle the outside rim in a thrashing and bucking gallop as if they thought they could follow the circular fence to freedom.

Caroline, with hoofbeats pumping in her throat, glanced at Hector. He seemed unimpressed, even sullen. Had she expected him to ogle? He blinked dully. The boy’s arm was clammy. How she hated him sometimes, his apathy, his fat face, his weirdness, and his shitty little selfish heart.

And just then, as she considered Hector, he smiled. A crooked smile, for much of the muscle was gone, and many of the teeth, but the movement was unmistakable. A smile! All day, he’d walked around as he always did, in a funk, and people avoided him. But now here was the Hector she knew and would recognize, under any circumstances. Here he was, after all. The sun, falling finally just enough, lost its harshness and bathed the prairie in lovely, pulpy rose light.

In the paddock, the mustangs, coats scummy with white sweat, slowed their gallop. Some stumbled over their own legs, some trotted, and some stopped. Wormy stomachs heaved; tongues lay limp on chomping pink lips. The stampede was over. Time to thin the herd. The cowboys would separate the horses and collect the young and the old, then cart them to ranches in the area, where they’d be broken into tame animals. The cowboys were surgical in their cutting and roping, Caroline saw. The horses didn’t stand a chance.

“Like shooting fishes at the bottom of a boat,” Scobey said to Caroline at the bar next to the motel later that night.

The bar was a brick building painted white and the door was hard to open against the wind that ransacked the forgotten town’s empty blocks. There were no windows to see the sun that balanced on the horizonline leak out of its circular shape, as a broken yoke from a cracked egg, to spread in a wavering brightness at the edge of everything before flickering gone. Inside the establishment, which smelled of rotten fruit and old grease fires, license plates climbed the walls and the dollar bills that coated the ceiling drifted in the breeze the ceiling fan gave off as it wobbled slowly in circles.

Both Scobey’s prosthetic elbows were propped on the table. He wore metal hooks in place of hands, steadying his drink with a hook on each side, and sipped the beverage through two black straws. “That’s a good kid to volunteer at these things,” he said, referring to Hector. “I know us busted soldiers aren’t every teen’s favorite weekend thing.” Scobey’s eyes settled on Caroline. “He okay, the kid?”

“Fine,” said Caroline. “He’s all set.” She examined the glass she brought to her mouth. Ice, smooth and opaque as beach glass. Whirling, rising columns of bubbles.

Earlier, Caroline had driven Hector back to the motel from the corral, microwaved him pizza, fed him his smorgasbord of pills, and set him up watching wrestling on the ancient TV. Then she left to walk to the bar. Halfway across the parking lot a bolt of panic shot through her. Something was wrong. She was sure of it.

She’d spun around and dashed back to the motel, sure that in the short time she’d been gone something terrible had happened. She struggled with the keycard and burst in the room.

“What’s up, Mom?” Hector asked sleepily from the bed, not looking away from the TV screen.

“Forgot my lipstick,” she’d said, stupidly.

On the way back to the bar, in the gusty prairie dark, she recited an Al-Anon prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” The recitation did not help her. It pissed her off. Bitterly, she decided the prayer was conceived by someone who wasn’t a mother. If they had been, they would have known. There is supposed to be nothing the mother cannot fix.

“Two. Hold the lime,” Scobey told the bartender who approached their table.

Caroline had accompanied Hector to several Wounded Warriors events now—a conference in Minneapolis, a ski trip in Minnesota. Scobey had attended each one and was always welcoming, as if she belonged among them, the soldiers.

Over on the barstools, locals bantered, some had bad teeth, some with good teeth, some with bottom of the bottle looks, and others casting long and nervous glances around them like fly lines lobbed into riffles. These last were obviously more comfortable confronted with sky and cloudscapes.

Caroline’s drink diminished, and refilled, and diminished again. A bit at a time, the lights dimmed, from glare to lemony, from lemony to glow. A green billiard table luminesced in the corner of the room like a pool of water. Same dive bar as everywhere.

A thought struck Caroline. “Your wife not coming?” she asked Scobey. Caroline had met his wife on several occasions, and she seemed a chatty, engaged woman. That this was the wrong thing to ask, though, became instantly clear.

“Nah, she hates me. Made it a point to tell me she wanted to call the kids, they’ve been with her mom,” he said, bluntly. “She says I scare them now.”

Perhaps he hadn’t planned to say all that, and he sighed. His sigh lengthened his frown lines and his head bobbed closer to his hooks. Scobey was a handsome man, with choppy eyebrows, a rugged nick in his chin, and dimples in each cheek whether he frowned or smiled. It was hard telling what secrets two held between them.

She had thought hard on shunnings, of course. After Hector’s accident, her family became fodder for Fargo gossips at book groups and luncheons where Caroline was no longer invited. And there was Hector Sr. They still lived in the same house, but ever since the accident, Caroline often forgot her husband existed. When he was around, he rarely addressed her, and she would catch him wincing in shame or disgust sometimes when he set eyes on their son.

Caroline tried to scoot her chair closer to Scobey’s and she heaved forward with her bodyweight, but the legs stuck on the carpet. He reached over, hooked a wooden arm, and yanked. The chair skidded. Knees tapped. Caroline felt a jolt on contact. No one had touched her in a very long time except doctors patting her back or shaking her hand. She wanted to be closer just because Scobey moved against his clothes and breathed a jet of balmy air from his mouth and smaller breezes from each nostril, and because he lived, he lived in his body, such as it was, without doing what the boy had done.

“Do you still feel them?” Caroline asked.

Scobey chuckled. “My hands and feet? Nah, the ringing in my ears keeps me distracted from that.”

Caroline stared at him. “Tinnitus?”

Scobey said yes, the very same.

“Hector’s got tinnitus,” Caroline said, carefully.

The boy explained his tinnitus like a bright red ringing or a blinding white bell, as if he heard the ever-present noise in his ears in shades instead of frequencies of torture. The noise drove Hector mad, and one time he thrashed at night until he was so hung in his bedsheets he couldn’t call for help, and she found him blue. Another time, he tried to stick a small soldering iron in his ear canal, but she stopped him in time.

“I’m sorry, Caroline,” Scobey said. Freckles on his wrinkled brow fluttered when he spoke. She wanted to reach out and touch them, there and there.

“Not your fault,” she said, swallowing and swallowing again.

“I’m not sorry because it’s my fault,” he said softly. “I’m sorry because no kid should have to go through that.

From the corner, the jukebox whirled alive, beeping and blinking. Beads of lights bubbled, and mechanical hands spun records, and the music poured slowly out of the overhead speakers, quiet at first and gaining volume. She and Scobey were swaying faintly apart and together again, some seated waltz. Someone left the bar and wind slipped in the opened door. On the wall, license plates clattered together.

“Most vibrations help mine,” Scobey said, eventually. “I ride with my buddy, he runs a big rig. He’ll truck me with him to Delaware, or Oregon, or wherever. He’s a good friend, says he likes the company, and even if I know he’s lying, I ask to hitch along every chance I can. Just the feeling of sixteen wheels… He pulls over and we sleep in the bunks at night, truck engine on, grinding away.” Scobey traded the bartender an empty glass for a full one, and the bartender refused to accept Scobey’s tip as he had every time. Then Scobey continued. “You know, my trucker friend told me about a cave in California that sounds like being inside a trumpet in a brass band.”

The cave was accessed by going hand over hand down a knotted rope that was set on a rocky, guano-plastered cliff. The rock was sharp, and the rope frayed. Below the cliff, the ocean beat porous rock to razor points and ridges. Almost among the frothing waves, there was an opening in the black slickrock. It was possible to scramble into that opening, and after ten or twenty dark and bottomless feet, the tunnel dropped into an enormous cavern. Sea lions and otters and seals played on basalt benches. In the center of the cave, a stalactite cone rose out of a maze of tide pools. It was possible to clear the maze, pass the animals unharmed, and climb to the pinnacle of rock and wait while the cave filled back up with water as the tide came in, crashing and thrashing and beating about. Scobey’s friend had said it was terrifying. “Like being in the center of an earthquake,” Scobey said, “dead center, said his fillings about came out his teeth. Said I’d die and go to heaven to feel it. You should take Hector.”

Caroline thought on the proposal for a minute and finished her drink. They could leave. They could never go back. Maybe they could start a whole new life. As the idea clarified, Caroline felt a wave of joy break inside her. She smacked the table with her hand and Scobey jerked, wide-eyed with surprise.

“Let’s go,” she said. “To the cave. Let’s go right now. You’ll come.” A flush crept over her face; she must be crazy.

“Well hold on now,Scobey said. His smile and the outside corners of his eyes darkened and tattled on his nameless fear and Caroline recognized it, knew that fear because it snaked up her neck, wound around her ears, and if they didn’t move, it would get them both.

He glanced about. So did she. Could they be overheard? Had vets or worse yet, Scobey’s wife, snuck in when they weren’t looking? No, they were the last patrons at the bar. A few stools creaked as if inhabited by invisible customers. The bartender’s rounded, bovine back was to them.

“Tonight?” Scobey asked.

Tonight,” Caroline whispered.

They hovered inches apart like conspirators. She could feel the ripe plum-smelling wetness in his breath on her nose and her lips. Tiny seedbeads of sweat quivered on the shafts of hair shading the vet’s upper lip. “Tonight.”

He rose from the table to follow her more gracefully than Caroline imagined he could. He was a tall man, still strong chested and straight-backed, and he walked quickly, if haltingly, on his plastic and rubber appendages. She reached for the scuffed-wood door handle. A cold band lashed her arm. She gasped, had she been burned? No, it was Scobey’s hook, guiding her to face him. The hook was gentle, chilly, insistent in the way a hand was not. It was not unpleasant.  How extraordinary.

She waited for his lips, but Scobey’s chin scudded lightly across her cheek as he moved his mouth near her ear. His jaw popped quietly when he said, “What happened to Hector?”

She was startled. What could she say? But behind her back, wind hissed under the door and the tartan on Scobey’s shirt rushed at her. A button pressed uncomfortably into her breast. “I thought you all knew,” she said, miserably, for lack of a better answer. She meant all the vets.

“Tell me,” he said. The gentlest order.

So she did.

“Twice?” Scobey said after she spoke.

The bullets were her dad’s, they were old as hell. “The first one stuck here.” She gestured. And Hector had clicked the trigger and fired again.

A noise came from her nose as if she was approving of some fine thing, but her eyes shone wetly. She had never articulated the details before, not to anyone. During the calls after the incident, to her sister in Florida, to her husband’s parents in Norfolk, she only iterated, yes, with a gun, yes, my gun, no, he will survive.

“Whelp,” Scobey said, “the boy has some balls.”

Up at the bar, the bartender lit a cigarette and his shadow danced large in the smoke that surrounded him. Behind the bar, neon signs that bore animals and slogans hung behind the bottles. Colored balls of light danced in the air.

Scobey steadied himself over Caroline with a hook on either side of her head, bap bap, against the door. That door pushed against them; the wind rattled the hinges; they could both feel the power of the wind off the plains trying to get in. Perhaps the wind needed comforting, too?

She stood on her toes and slowly, slowly, kissed the bulge of Scobey’s Adam’s apple, pressing her lips against his windpipe. Hard cartilage gave slightly, and then she twirled the tip of her tongue around the small hairs there. Aha, she thought, when a part of him asserted an insistent prodding near her bellybutton. Then his breath caught in his throat, and she felt his convulsion.

Scobey came in his pants.

Their exhales circled them.

“I’m sorry, Caroline.” He did not whisper.

But she did not mind, actually. She felt proud, somehow. Coming from him, her name reminded her of clear syrup, delicious.

He whispered something to her that was not meant for other ears.

Grinning and stirred and lightened, they separated bodily and yelled a thanks across the room to the bartender, who wished them well from behind a curtain of smoke where he appeared a goliath and then shrunken. The neon on the walls ran like water. Caroline swore the bartender called after them, you are not adrift!  But that was impossible. Why would he? She must have imagined it. As they hurried to the motel their heads were filled with the buzz of the other.

Now the breeze was at their backs. How cool, how deep and comforting was the prairie night and the smell of wet rocks and seeping water holes. Stars twinkled off their teeth and glittered in spinning spirals in their eyes. Back at her room at the inn, they roused the boy, who had fallen asleep and when he raised his head, groggily, the scar that ran from his chin to his nose was piqued from the pressure.

Hector was not upset at the change of plans, and he hurried to stuff his things in his duffel. “Does Dad know?” he asked. He doesn’t? How dangerous. How different. Hector hummed as he straightened his glasses and followed them out the door and into the car.

On the way out of town, the gleam of the moon shined on the rim of the boy’s forehead and on his greasy, blessedly intact nose. In the rearview, it appeared the boy was a small blue flame bobbing in between the two front seats. Caroline’s heart grew and lengthened, one rung at a time, until she imagined her hope as a ladder to her own idea of heaven, false as it was, and all of the occupants of the car sensed vertical flow, that combustion of theirs climbing the sky. Blacktop rollicked under the tires and the stars squeaked eerie cries. The wind was a hand that pushed them forward, onward, so that the car’s speed exceeded the speedometer’s telling. Caroline had no idea how fast they were going, and figured the dash was out a spark plug.

Scobey’s hook drilled a singular point of pressure into her thigh.

“You forgot your hands,” she said, referring to the prosthetics he sometimes wore.

“And clean socks,” he responded and winked. “But I have my wallet.”

Quickly, they fled the lights of town. Just past where the prairie began, just past the last of the ever-marching crops, Caroline realized they were approaching the old rodeo grounds where they witnessed the roundup. Now, the corral and bleachers stood deserted. Caroline swung the car off the road, parked, and roused the boy to come with her.

For a time, Caroline and Hector wandered mutely around the rodeo grounds, which mist and dark had altered to an ancient Stonehenge of Mesolithic totems. The sky, unbelievably big, encouraged Caroline to stare up and she opened her mouth wide as she was able, feeling like part of the nothing, one and the same, swallowed and swallowing.

Aurora Stone Mehlman is a fiction writer who calls Boise, Idaho home. In 2023, she won second place in
The Masters Review‘s Summer Short Story Awards for New Writers and published a short story in Oregon State’s lit mag 45th Parallel. In 2022, she received a Judge’s Pick in the Boise Weekly’s Fiction 101 Contest and in 2020, she won third place in the Glenn Balch Awards for Fiction. She teaches English at Boise State University and the College of Western Idaho, graduated with an MFA in fiction from Boise State University in 2021, is raising a daughter, and also works for The Cabin, where she helps kids in juvenile detention learn to express themselves by writing creatively.


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