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For a fourteen year old girl, sleepovers are better than Christmas. Penelope Kniffen was no exception to this rule. She and several of her friends plotted the sleepover between classes, standing by their lockers with their notebooks clasped to their chests.
When the doorbell began to ring, Penny assured her mother that she could answer it. "Take Dad and go!" she said, shooing them out on their Friday night date. This was the first time Penny was allowed to stay home alone with friends, and she didn't want it spoiled by her parents' presence.
Her mother and father nodded to red-headed Brinn Henricks, who tucked something closer to her and under her arm and gave them a thoroughly fake smile. Once their car disappeared from the driveway, Brinn grabbed Penny's hand.
“I brought a Ouija board! So we can have fun with the dead.”
Penny's face fell. She was afraid to even touch the letter-finder part, and wanted Brinn to get rid of it. But soon Esmerelda and Amie arrived, and persuaded her to play. We'll have a good time, their voices echoed in unison in Penny's mind as they began to ask questions.
“Does Matty Dunworth have a crush on me?” Brinn asked the board
“Ewww, gross, that's my brother!” Esmerelda squealed, as the letters spelled out, "FAT CHANCE." The girls all fell into a giggling fit, and even Penny relaxed a little.
"Your turn, Penny," Amie said.
Penny froze. "I -- I can't."
"Come on, Penny. We've all asked questions. It's just a Ouija board," Brinn said. She made a face at Penny. "Chicken."
As their catcalls filled Penny's ears, she felt her resolve weaken. She leaned over the board, her mind racing. She already knew that her crush didn't like her, and her grades were bad; she wasn't getting any A's this semester. Then it hit her: the horse her father had given her for her eleventh birthday, which had come down with a crippling disease just two years later."Sultan," she said, even the name evoking a ghost of a white stallion in her mind, "are you in the other world?"
Her friends grew hushed and they held their breath, waiting for a reply. The living room clock ticked once, twice, three times, four times.Nothing.
Penny sighed, partly with relief and partly with disappointment, and sat back. She opened her mouth to say something, but suddenly, the faintest sound of hoofbeats came from the front yard. Brinn's jaw dropped.
"Was that...a horse?"
Amie scrambled to her feet and peeked through the curtains. Her face fell. "I don't...see anything..."As if from a distance, Penny heard a familiar neighing. She jumped to her feet. "Shhhh! I heard something!"
The whinny came again, and they all nodded, faces white. "I heard it, too," Esmerelda said. Then Penny flew backwards across the room, the right side of her rib cage exploding into a pain so sharp, she thought she would collapse inward. Her friends all screeched, and Brinn dove for her cell phone, frantically trying to dial numbers through her tears.
"Hello? Mr. Kniffen? Please, please come home...something's happening to Penny..." Brinn screamed again, then yelled into her phone, "Hurry!"
Penny lay, the only movement on her body her fast, shallow breathing. The girls couldn't even move until the screech of tires in the driveway and heavy footsteps on the stoop heralded Penny's parents' arrival.The sleepy doctor in the emergency room came awake when he examined the bruise on Penny's rib cage. It was the size and shape of a horseshoe, gray-black and eight inches tall. Maybe next time she’ll listen to her mother when she says Do not try to do that which is not natural to you. Penny never really got what it meant until now.
For a 45-year-old woman, the sleepover is a distant memory. But on Penelope Kniffen's wrinkling skin, with no pain but still as dark as ever, the horseshoe bruise always reminds her, and sometimes she can still hear Sultan's whinny from far away.