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Doing Without
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Susan hauled herself to her blistered feet. Her knees ached, her hand throbbed, her lungs heaved with the effort of extracting oxygen from a lit atmosphere. She pushed herself forward, unable to conceive of a world in which she’d have to do without Robusto. This proud creature was her equine doppelganger, or at least the embodiment of what she aspired to be.

He usually stood tall, his back unbowed, his surefooted gait carrying him across all challenges, his manner that of a thoroughbred in all things. But she caught glimpses of him now, boxed in and mad with mortal fear. He beat his forelocks and banged his head against the gate that held between him and his continued existence. Those legs were oddly bent, likely broken by frantic blows against wide cedar planks. A dark river ran from a split in his ebony forehead, exposing stark white bone; blood filled his flared nostrils and frantic muzzle, his hyperventilation forming a crimson froth. The horrible odor of burning hair hit Susan — the horse’s mane was ablaze, and she suspected her own locks at least singed by the ever-closer flames.

The last moment she recalled clearly was defined by the crackling sounds that surrounded her rising to the ungodly, earth-moving crescendo of a crack. A weakened beam in the peaked roof gave in to gravity and fell in between Susan and Robusto. The force of impact on the ground, coupled with a flurry of scarlet embers and charcoal splinters, blew Susan backward. She tumbled over a steaming water trough, the superheated galvanized steel raising immediate red welts across the backs of her thighs. The back of her head bounced off the concrete. Her brain bucked against her skull; her peripheral vision shut down, resulting in a tunnel view of the ceiling being consumed by fire.

When she blinked, her eyes reopened to a tinier field of perception each time. She became aware that she was coughing, choking, crying, and losing consciousness. She tried to lift her limbs, but found them unresponsive. It was as if the entirety of the burning barn were weighing on her, claiming her. A single thought flared in her mind: She dreamed she’d die on this ranch, and now that wish was coming true much sooner than anticipated.

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