Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2021    poetry    all issues

Fiction Winter 2021 cover


Andrej Lišakov

Kati Iso

Devon Bohm

Sarah P. Blanchard
Playing Chess with Bulls

Brandi Sperry

Parker Fendler
Mittens and Things

L. Michael Bohigian

Elizabeth Lyvers
The House and the Sea

K. Ralph Bray
Rocket Girl

Brittany Meador
Darkside Knocking

Nick Gallup
My Son's Grandmother

Rodney Stephens

Salena Casha
When you find yourself at the bottom of the stair, think of Diderot

John Maki
Max, They

Writer's Site

Sarah P. Blanchard

Playing Chess with Bulls

Two months ago on Darcy’s nineteenth birthday I asked her why she rode bulls.

Part of it I get—the grit-and-rhinestone glamor of rodeos, the macho kick-ass allure of cowboy culture.

But what flirt-with-death wish compelled my sister to take up a sport like bull-riding? And how is it a sport to climb onto a pissed-off, three-quarter-ton beast—with horns—that wants to stomp you into the dirt?

Those china-blue eyes gleamed whenever she talked about the bulls. “It’s like an eight-second game of chess. You have to out-think the moves your opponent’s gonna make. The bull,” she added. Like I couldn’t figure it out. “He’s your opponent.”

“Right. Exactly like chess.”

She didn’t hear the sarcasm and she was just spouting bullshit—real bullshit, right?—from the rodeo producer’s PR campaign. Their latest attempt at lipsticking a brutal gladiator event.

Darcy was all earnest, pleading for me to understand. “Bull-riders are real religious, you know. There’s a prayer we all say while we’re gettin’ our glove and rope all rosined up. ‘Lord ride with me.’ Then you climb in the chute and ease down onto ol’ Mister Bull and just keep sayin’ it, ‘Lord ride with me Lord ride with me Lord ride with me.’ Set your spurs and lean in. Finish it with ‘By your grace I am saved.’ Then everything explodes and it’s awesome, the best adrenalin rush ever. Like a religious thing. Ecstasy, but not the drug.”

“You joined a church?”

“No, it’s just what you say.”

“So riding bulls is like taking drugs?”

Way better. Come watch me ride, Bets. Support your kid sister.”

“I can’t watch. So no.”

But I do support her. I’ve been feeding her and her horse for the past two years. And after each smash-up with a bull—first a cracked collarbone and busted ribs, then a wired-up jaw and a ruptured spleen—I convinced my husband Ryan to move his weights from the guest room to the garage so Darcy could recuperate at our house.

After a brindle Brahma named Bruisemaker broke her leg last spring, she stayed with me for three weeks. At end of week one, Ryan let me know what he thought about that by slamming the back door off its hinges. He moved in with his cousin in Marshall and stayed there until I helped Darcy get good on crutches. I set her up in a Motel 6, the only place I could afford.

No one’s heard from Darcy now for three days.

They found her truck at the post office yesterday, Monday morning. A mail carrier arriving early for work saw Darcy’s rusted-out F-150 sitting at the far side of the parking lot, apparently abandoned. The doors were unlocked and a key sat in plain sight on the dash. The left rear tire was flat. No spare.

The truck wouldn’t start, a sheriff’s deputy informed me over the phone.

“The mailman recognized the truck. Told us you’re her sister.”

I waited for him to ask a question. He waited for me to say something.

“Yeah,” I offered.

“But she didn’t call you.”


He had lots more questions I couldn’t answer. No, I didn’t know where Darcy was supposed to be. Did she have a job? Maybe. I wasn’t sure. Where did she usually stay? In her truck. Sometimes with a friend. No, I didn’t know who.

He sighed. “Do you have a photo of her?”

We were both relieved when I said yes. I texted him a picture of Darcy on her eighteenth birthday, a little more than a year ago. I’d taken her to dinner at a barbecue shack, just the two of us. She wore a lacy white low-cut blouse and her shortest miniskirt, and a walking cast on her right foot. The photo was a good one. She wasn’t posing or mugging, just smiling a little. It was easy to see her lean face and the thick rope of straw-yellow hair hanging over her shoulder. Her head was turned a little so the scar on her jaw wasn’t visible.

The deputy said he’d send the photo around. If she didn’t turn up in twenty-four hours, they’d put a search together. He thought the truck may have been there a day already, maybe two.

The post office sits at the end of town where the road changes from county pavement to one-lane gravel and disappears into the Pisgah National Forest, half a million acres of wilderness. There’s not really a town there, more like a couple of buildings on a flood-prone riverbank between two mountains. Next to the post office is a gas-and-sandwiches store, and beyond that, a campground entrance with a trailhead into the forest.

On a busy summer weekend, hundreds of day-hikers and campers swarm into the Pisgah. Then the post office yard becomes an overflow parking lot. With all that traffic, no one gave Darcy’s broken-down truck a second glance until the campground crowd cleared out early Monday.

I figured Darcy would turn up on her own in a day or two with an elaborate story about spending the weekend with someone she met in a bar. But this morning—Tuesday—I got a call from the sheriff’s office. They were organizing a search, headquartered at the campground, and I needed to show up.

School was starting in a week and I should’ve been finalizing orientation for my third-graders. But I set that aside and drove out, stopping briefly to drop off a bag of grain for Darcy’s horse, Wiley, who lived at an old farm on the way to the campground.

By the time I arrived, the county’s search-and-rescue team had rounded up a couple dozen volunteers. The camp’s parking lot was crowded with ATVs and big-wheel pickups, pre-coated with mud. Farmers and hunters wearing Carhartt denim and dirty camo formed small groups. They looked busy and important as they checked radios, shrugged into blaze-orange vests, and squinted at photocopied maps.

A deputy I’d never met, a restless, bulked-up cop named Jeffries in a tight khaki shirt and aviator shades, pulled me aside. Someone had seen a blond girl hitchhiking out on the county road, he told me, two days earlier.

“We’re thinking it was Darcy. She must’ve set out on foot.”

“I don’t think she was on foot—”

“Yeah, she thumbed a ride with the wrong person.”

“That’s not what I meant. Her horse—”

“She’s a pretty girl, right? We’re not assuming foul play, not yet, but yeah.” Jeffries nodded a lot, agreeing with himself.

“That’s not what I meant—”

Someone called “Deputy!” and he pivoted away. I leaned against my Jeep, wondering what I was supposed to do next.

Was Darcy pretty? I never thought so. All those scars, and way too skinny. But our mother always said I was the smart one, the responsible one, so where did that leave Darcy?

Jeffries came back and resumed his spiel. He talked about BOLOs and mapping apps, tracking dogs and tri-state coordination. They were setting up a phone-in tipline. They’d find her and the bastard that took her.

When he stopped for breath, I told him I’d found Darcy’s horse that morning, wandering outside his pasture. Not more than half a mile from here, back along the county road.

He shrugged it off. A loose horse, no big deal, happened all the time around here. Someone left the gate open, or the horse jumped out.

“Yeah, but—” My jaw was starting to clench up. “Wiley, that’s her horse—he was real sweaty. Like someone was riding him this morning. Maybe Darcy rode up one of the trails, into the Pisgah.”

His eyebrows climbed over the aviators. “You think your sister went for a ride on her horse? Instead of looking for help after her truck broke down?” He aimed his gaze at the mountain behind me. “Was the horse wearing a saddle?”

“No, just a halter. With a piece of rope.”

“Well, there you are. A halter’s what you use to lead a horse, not to ride one. Best thing is, you go home and wait. Where you’ll have a reliable phone signal.”

He added a chin-jerk, indicating my Jeep.

I really wanted to grab Deputy Jeffries by his shirt but that would be a bad idea, so instead I raised my schoolteacher voice. “A really good rider, like my sister Darcy, doesn’t need a saddle. She rides bulls in rodeos, for chrissake.”

But he was talking into his radio, and I don’t think he heard.

“So now what, Wiley? I know you’ve been here before. So, which way?”

A horse can feel if you’re nervous, so I tried to fake a confidence I didn’t have. I hadn’t been on a horse in years.

But Wiley was pretty chill. He stood patiently, shaking his head occasionally at gnats and deerflies. We paused in the mid-afternoon shade on the bank of Watson’s Creek at the edge of the Pisgah Forest. Waiting for me to decide where to go.

We’d ridden along a wide, well-marked path from the gravel access road to an empty picnic site where the trail forked. Turn left, and you’d have a pleasant, shady stroll along the creek back to the main entrance. Go right, and you’d be scrambling up an overgrown game trail that doesn’t appear on any Forest Service map. It winds through a jumble of boulders the size of bucket loaders, then climbs almost straight up into deep wilderness.

I’d ridden that unmarked trail once, a decade ago when Darcy was nine and I was fourteen. Some older kids told her about a clearing with a waterfall at the top of the mountain, so of course she had to see it.

That had been a tough ride. She’d had Wiley for only about a month then, and his steering—or hers—was still kind of sketchy. On the way down the mountain, my little old pinto mare Dixie tripped over a rock and came up lame, so I’d had to get off and walk her home, stumbling downhill through loose rocks and mudslides. We didn’t get back until after dark and of course Mom blamed me.

So no, I didn’t want to follow that game trail today. But I could see hoofprints, same size as Wiley’s, in the mud by the streambank. One set of tracks pointed straight up that unblazed trail, and a second set showed where the same horse came back down.

Wiley snorted, blowing the gnats from his nose and startling me. Then he shook his whole body like an oversized hound slinging off bathwater, telling me that it was decision-time.

I lifted the reins and nudged his belly with my heels. We ducked under low hemlock branches and began climbing.

The trail was steep, with lots of switchbacks, and I quickly came to admire Wiley’s mountain-climbing skills. He was nineteen, not a young horse, but still surefooted and clever, a tough old hill pony apparently born with all-wheel-drive.

It was hard work, though. An hour in, Wiley and I were both dripping with sweat. My thighs burned and my lower back ached and I was cursing Darcy’s saddle, a dried-out chunk of leather designed for barrel racing, not backcountry riding. The saddle needed treating with neatsfoot oil to soften it up. Darcy loved that old trophy saddle but she’d let the care of it slide, too, along with everything else.

That saddle was the biggest award she ever won at a rodeo. The lettering stamped on its scuffed skirts proclaimed their victory, hers and Wiley’s: Champion Barrels, Girls 12-14, Yancey County 2009. From when she was still in school and still crazy about horses, not chasing broke cowboys and bone-crushing bulls.

When we reached a mostly level section of trail, I stepped off so Wiley could catch his breath. I leaned against his steaming, oak-brown shoulder and inhaled his hot-earth horse smell. It’s a special aroma, way more than just horse. It’s fresh-baled hay and livestock shows, picking apples and planting corn. Watching a newborn calf stand on shaky legs and find its mama for the first time. All that rural-kid, farm-life stuff that’s supposed to make up for having parents who earned too little and fought too much.

Two months ago, Darcy told me she needed a new horse, something younger than Wiley. Better trained for ranch work, roping calves and chasing strays. What she claimed her real job was now, or would be soon, while she got better at bull-riding.

“What about Wiley?” I asked her.

“I’ll retire him to a good family. He can have an easy life, teaching little kids to ride.”

That sounded nice, but she never got the money together to buy a new horse and she never found Wiley a retirement home.

Truth? She’s never earned enough to feed herself, let alone a horse. For the past two years, I’d been buying Wiley’s hay and horseshoes with money from my summertime tutoring. It paid better than Ryan knew; he was under the impression that my side-gig money paid for yoga classes. I hate yoga.

Since I was footing the bills for Wiley’s keep, I could’ve ridden him anytime I wanted. But I never asked, and Darcy never offered. We’d both learned to ride as kids but horses were Darcy’s thing, not mine. I never thought a horse would get me what I wanted, so I quit riding after eighth grade.

For me, it’s always been eyes on the prize. Grades and graduation, a steady job, a steady husband. Check, check, check. Ryan says I was born grown up. I’m so responsible, he says, I’m boring. Except I was buying Wiley’s oats on the sly.

Good old Wiley. When his breathing steadied, I hauled myself back into the saddle and we resumed climbing. Where a fallen pine tree blocked the way, I hung onto the saddle horn and gave Wiley his head so he could lurch and leap over. By then, I was giving equal time to prayers and curses, and worrying about how we were going to get down off this mountain before dark without falling off a cliff and breaking a leg.

If Darcy were here, she’d say breaking a leg isn’t the worst thing that can happen.

“I came off my bull the wrong way,” she’d explained at the discharge desk.

“There’s a right way?” I’d swallowed three ibuprofens on the way to the hospital because when I get that angry, my jaw clenches shut, and I get horrible headaches. I was able to speak so the ibuprofen must’ve been working.

“Any way’s the right way, as long as you stay on for the buzzer.”

“And did you? Stay on for eight seconds and the buzzer?”

“Two and half. He was a real twisty bastard. They named him Killdevil Hill.”

She said it with reverence, like being a twisty bastard was a good thing.

Worse than the broken leg, she reminded me, was what happened four years ago when our fed-up mother kicked Daddy out of the house. Two days later, Mom put our sorry little farm on the market and told Darcy to pack, they were getting an apartment in town. Moving in with Mom’s boyfriend Herb.

Daddy wasn’t exactly a catch—he hung onto his truck-driving jobs just long enough to qualify for unemployment, then spent his cash on booze and hunting gear—but he was good to us girls. I never knew what our mother saw in Herb, a sullen, obese plumber with bad breath and bad teeth. He inhaled two packs of cigarettes a day and communicated mostly by grunting.

“What are you going to do?” Darcy wailed over the phone the night after they moved into Herb’s apartment. I knew exactly what I was going to do: finish college, marry Ryan, teach little kids. Avoid going home.

But Darcy was only fifteen, so she was stuck. She said she had three good things left in her life, Wiley and her saddle and an old hunting knife that Dad gave her. She left her big sister—me—off her good-things list, she said, because I’d abandoned her.

Years later, Darcy told me she kept the knife stashed under her pillow at night because Herb always stood a little too close and gave her the creeps. My sister was silent about some things and a total drama queen about others so the knife and Herb’s creepiness may not have been true.

Mom declared it was a relief to have a man who didn’t get drunk every night and smash things. By “things,” maybe she meant herself as well as the furniture. I never asked.

Darcy was a marginal student at best, but her grades really went down the toilet after they moved. She quit school the day she turned sixteen. She was probably a little dyslexic but no one talked about it, and maybe social services should’ve gotten involved but no one called them.

Darcy’s first cowboy was a calf-roper, a soft-spoken Texan who taught her to roll a joint and drive a stick shift. He had a mattress in his Silverado and a spare slot in his horse trailer, so she and Wiley joined him on his tour of a bush-league rodeo circuit.

Then the Texas roper got a job on a ranch in Montana so Darcy moved in with a bronc rider who convinced her to quit the relatively safe sport of girls’ barrel-racing and learn to chase the “real money” in riding roughstock. That’s rodeo-speak for broncs and bulls, those violent, rider-hating animals that are bred and trained to explode into a bucking frenzy that pitches riders into the dirt.

Broncs, Darcy explained, bucked higher than bulls and came down harder but the bulls were more challenging because they could spin and corkscrew in mid-air. When a rider comes off, a bronc usually gallops away. But a bull often turns and tries to kill the rider. She liked the bulls.

After her first broken rib during a practice ride, I bought her a padded body protector off eBay. After she caught a horn in the face that broke her jaw, I bought her a helmet, too, with a chin guard and face cage.

Our conversation from a month ago followed the usual pattern.

“You’re wearing the helmet and the vest, right? Every ride?”


She was lying. I couldn’t watch her ride, but I searched for new photos every Monday morning, and I’d seen the Instagram pics from her Friday night practice rides: head bare, yellow braids flying, skinny body whipped sideways.

“Come on, Bets!” She’d perfected her snarky eyeroll years ago. “Can you show a little family pride here? I’m achieving. I’m not a buckle bunny, an arm-candy idiot who’ll sleep with any asshole. Any buckles, I win myself.”

“You haven’t won any buckles. You’re hooked on painkillers. And the prize money’s shit. Especially for girls.”

“Women. We got a league. I need the Oxies so I can keep riding.”

“You’ll be crippled before you’re good enough to earn back your entry fees.”

“There’s a guy from Australia making a movie about it. Us. Women riding roughstock.”

“Yeah, right. What’s his name? How much is he paying you?”

“I don’t care about the money.”

“So he’s not paying you.”

“You don’t understand. It’s all about the bulls. That rush I get from a ride? That’s how I know I’m real.

I’ve never questioned being real. It’s like we weren’t from the same planet, much less the same family.

Five years’ difference in age is fine if you’re in a family where the adults do some reliable parenting. Then later, when you and your little sister are both grown up, you can laugh about how she tagged along everywhere and tattled on you and stole your makeup. Then she’d apologize for that time when she was seven, when she threw her mittens in the creek and hid for hours in the attic and Mom came home and blamed you for the lost mittens and your lost sister. You have to keep looking for her, Mom said. No matter how long it takes.

If that was the two of you in a normal family, you’d be laughing together now and poking each other and shouting, “Sisters forever!”

Ryan was no help. He disapproved of Darcy and everything about her. Her sparkly rodeo shirts and her boots caked with cowshit. Her habit of showing up for dinner unannounced and leaving with all the leftovers plus a little cash for groceries. What with dropping out of school and spending money she didn’t have and getting herself busted up, he told me, my sister had pretty much trashed her whole life at nineteen. Ryan didn’t mention drugs so maybe he didn’t know about the opioids.

He said I enabled Darcy. I said I was talking to her, trying to guide her. He didn’t care about guidance, he cared about our money that somehow got wasted on her rodeos. How could we save for a down payment on a house if I kept saving Darcy? Cut her off, he said.

A week ago, I made that call. It’s over, I told her.

“Sorry, Darcy. I can’t do this anymore. Get clean, get a job, find Wiley a home. Like you said.”

“It’s Ryan, isn’t it?” She whispered over the phone like we were all in the same room and he might hear. “You can’t cut me off just because Ryan hates me.”

“You’re still riding bulls? What the hell, Darcy. You have a death wish, go chase it.”

“You make it sound like I’m totally fucked up.”

“Get a job.”

“I have a job! At Beekman’s.”

“Part-time laborer, minimum wage if you get lucky. Shoveling cowshit and stacking hay bales. Half the time you can’t even do that because you’re on crutches. Grow up.”

Silence, then a sniffle.

I sighed. “Have you talked to Mom?”

“She hangs up. Doesn’t answer my texts.” Her voice caught. “Look, if you can’t help me pay for Wiley, then that’s it. He’s yours.”

“I don’t want your horse! Quit the bulls and get yourself off the Oxies. Call me when you get it together.”

By the time Wiley carried me onto the last high ridge, it was late afternoon. We’d climbed a thousand feet up to a small clearing near the top of the mountain, all gravel and boulders and scrubby bushes. A spring trickled out of a ledge and formed a narrow stream that cascaded over rocks and filled a shallow pool. Darcy’s waterfall. The air was cool and I had an awesome view of the mountains. For a moment, I watched a pair of hawks riding a thermal at eye-level. Far below, Watson’s Creek wound along the valley floor to the campground. Beyond was the post office parking lot where Darcy’s truck sat.

I climbed down from the saddle, loosened Wiley’s cinch, and let him drink. I tied his reins tight to a small oak tree so he couldn’t wander away without me.

Had I ridden all that way for nothing? I walked along the stream and around the ridgetop, looking for some sign that Darcy had been there recently.

At one side of the clearing, a mattress-sized ledge of granite overhung a sharp drop-off. I walked toward the far edge, but I’ve never liked heights so when I got close to the rim I dropped down on hands and knees and eased forward between two big rocks, peering over.

Then I scrambled back, fast, because there was nothing out there except air and dizziness. Step off that cliff and you’d drop a hundred feet or more, straight down onto treetops and rocks.

I crawled back from the overhang. When I could breathe again, I stood and looked back to check on Wiley, dozing by the oak tree.

On top of a mossy boulder, less than a yard from where I stood, was a cellphone. The case was filthy black and the screen was cracked and I knew it was my sister’s latest pay-as-you-go.

“Darcy?” First I whimpered it. Then I cried it. Then I planted my feet on the gravel and screamed her name over and over until every forest sound paused in shock and I had no voice left.

Nothing changed. The small stream flowed, Wiley stood by his tree, and Darcy’s phone sat on the boulder.

I pulled my own phone from my jeans pocket and found Deputy Jeffries’s number. I walked to one side of the clearing, then the other. There was no signal.

A thought surfaced. What had I said to Darcy, the last time we spoke? “Call me when you get it together.”

And yes, she had called me—that very morning, shortly after four a.m. It woke Ryan. He swore. “Do not pick up. She’ll leave a message.”

I was only half-awake anyway, so I went back to sleep. When I woke for real at seven, I’d forgotten all about the call. She hadn’t left a message and she never called back.


Some part of me was aware that the sun was getting low. In the deepest mountain coves, shadows had already crept in. Wiley and I needed to get off this mountain and find help.

An eerie, flute-like whistle broke the silence. It was Darcy’s ringtone—the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, her favorite movie. Wiley’s ears pricked and he turned his head.

Her phone had a different carrier than mine but still how could there be a signal up here?

The caller was someone named Jake. My hand hovered and the screen faded. I’d missed it.

The screen flickered alive again. A new voicemail. I knew her password because I’ve always known Darcy’s passwords, and then I heard a man’s voice fading and rising. Accented, something from another time zone.

They needed more footage, he said, for the roughstock project. Schedules and script approvals. Somebody liked the back-story. “Back on Thursday, Darce, with my mate for photos.”

The voice of Jake paused. Waiting, like me, for Darcy to pick up. Then, “Hey Darcy, you there?”


The person who was me sat there for too many minutes, eventually remembering that we—she, I, Wiley—needed to get off the mountain before dark. That person tightened Wiley’s cinch and swung into the saddle. Darcy’s horse—my horse—carefully slid and skidded and stumbled his way down to the valley just after sundown, with zero guidance from his rider.

At the farm, the not-me unsaddled Wiley. Hosed him off, fed him, and hugged him.

At the campground I found a different deputy, a warm-faced older woman who listened and asked good questions. I described the trail and showed her the photos I’d remembered to take with my phone. The clearing, the waterfall, Darcy’s cellphone on the moss-covered boulder. By then it was full-on dark and clouding in. The search would re-group at dawn, bringing in a tactical team with climbing gear and drones. They’d find her, she assured me.

I went home, said something forgettable to Ryan, and waited.

It’s been a week now with no news until the sheriff’s office called this morning. They found a body on the mountain, about a half mile away from the rocky clearing and the waterfall. It will take a few days to collect everything, bring it down, get an ID. Something about the remains being scattered.

I don’t believe it’s Darcy. Lots of people hike the backcountry in late summer.

Until I know different, I’ll stick with my routine. Each evening, I drive to the farm and spend an hour with Wiley. Sometimes I sit on a hay bale and work on my third-grade lesson plans, but usually I just brush my horse and pick the burrs out of his mane. I tell him things he might not know about my sister, from when she was little. How she loved to climb trees and fish in the lake at the quarry. How fearless she always was. How once she wanted to learn chess but she never opened the book I bought her.

I believe I’ve worked it out, what happened to my sister. She abandoned her broken-down truck at the post office soon after four a.m., right after she called me. She walked to the farm by moonlight, climbed over the gate, and went looking for Wiley. She called to him softly and moved quietly so he wasn’t startled from where he loved to sleep, in the lower pasture by the river. She wrapped her legs around his ribs, tangled her fingers in his mane, and rode bareback to the trailhead just as dawn broke, while the mist in the fields rose and swirled around them like a living thing.

What else was there for her to do then, but gallop along the creek and follow the ancient game trails, climbing the mountain to find that waterfall again?

I tell myself that even if I’d remembered to call her back that morning, it wouldn’t have changed things. By the time I was making coffee, she’d already set her cellphone on that mossy boulder by the little waterfall.

Maybe she put her phone down and forgot where she left it. Or she tripped and hit her head. Maybe Wiley wandered off and she tried to follow him but lost the trail.

It’s all a terrible mistake. I think she’ll just show up one day, maybe with a limp or more bruises. She’ll laugh and say she’d like her phone back, please. And her horse, and me.

Sarah P. Blanchard is an award-winning writer whose lived many years in New England, on farms large and small. A former teacher at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, she now lives and writes in western North Carolina. Her poems, nonfiction and short stories have appeared in several publications including three previous issues of Sixfold. “Playing Chess with Bulls” was a finalist for the 2021 Doris Betts fiction prize.

Dotted Line