Gwen picked up the levee trail behind the high school after the early morning rain stopped. She hadn’t put in contacts in the rush to beat the next storm that hovered over the hills in the distance, so everything looked slightly out of focus. She should have grabbed her glasses, but if her 2-year-old daughter saw her, she knew it would cause an inevitable delay. So she ran out the door and out of the cul-de-sac with her vision impaired.
She knew the route by heart from her cross country days, when she would follow teammates mid-pack out the back of the campus near the football field up onto the then-newly paved levee. Like she had done at 15, she ran down the steep hill at Miller Avenue. The backside of the park used to be a mess of bamboo, wild reeds and grasses that grew up to her knees. Now part of it had manicured grass for a baseball diamond and soccer field, and the swaths of dirt were cut through with a circuit of cement bike paths.
The weather was warm that morning, unlike the frosted days of the week before. High 40s— comparatively warm, anyway. The air smelled of wet compost, not the diseased decomposing scent one might expect, but an earthy, rich odor of transformation. Gwen looked up toward the white-washed boards of a horse corral in the distance. The mounted police unit used it for training exercises, but never so early in the morning. She lost her footing on some brush across the walkway when she noticed someone on a white horse in the distance. She swiped the debris from the path and squinted at the figure.
She made out the silhouette of someone with shoulder-length hair and a silver or gray top. She moved past them, keeping to her pace and route. As she rounded the corner back to her house, the first heavy drops of rain hit against her shoulders. She rushed upstairs to insert her contacts and shower, kissed her daughter Maddy and husband Tony goodbye, and headed out the garage door for work.
She rummaged through her purse with one hand in search of her key fob while she juggled a laptop case, a plastic grocery bag repurposed as a sack lunch, and a refillable water bottle. As she clicked the trunk open, she looked up and saw the white horse at the edge of the cul-de-sac.
Gwen couldn’t be sure it was the same horse or the same person she had seen before. She saw a man now, with brown hair that fell to his shoulders and a jaw that jutted out toward the Stop sign at the end of the block. He wore dark leather pants and a burgundy tunic with what looked like chain mail around his neck and shoulders. Gwen thought perhaps he was headed to the high school for a history lesson. She waved as she drove off in her SUV.
The next morning, the man on the horse was there again as she rushed to her car, perpetually in a state of lateness. But this time he approached her.
“Maiden, please join me on my steed and I shall whisk you away from this monstrosity,” the man said in an English accent as he held a sword in the direction of her car.
Gwen laughed and wondered if she’d missed an announcement of a Renaissance Faire in town.
“I’m quite alright,” she said. “What are you? Into cosplay?”
The man gave her a quizzical look and lowered himself from the horse.
“What is ‘cosplay?’ I’m here to rescue you, Guinevere,” he said. “I found your letter and I’ve been searching for you for years. I apologize for the delay.”
“Okay, enough shenanigans,” she said. “I’m late for work. And I don’t need to be rescued.”
Gwen threw her laptop bag into the passenger seat and started the car. She watched the man from the rearview mirror as she connected her phone to the Bluetooth. She waved as she exited the cul-de-sac.
At the end of the day, Gwen collected her daughter Maddy from daycare and they played a silly song called “We are the Dinosaurs” when they got home. Maddy stomped around the dining room table, her torso bent forward in velociraptor form, while Gwen cooked. Tony came in just before bedtime and whisked Maddy up into his arms, and nuzzled his nose against hers. The toddler giggled and shouted, “Maddy daddy tickles.”
Gwen cleared away the plates and leaned in to kiss Tony.
“Hey, have you seen someone on a white horse around the neighborhood lately?” she asked.
“A white horse?” Tony said. “Around here? What do you mean?”
“Nothing.” Gwen lifted Maddy from his arms to carry her upstairs.
After the bedtime routine that seemed to grow longer every night, Gwen sprawled out on top of the comforter of her own bed, to have a moment of quiet to herself. When she went back downstairs, Tony had changed out of his suit into basketball shorts and a t-shirt.
He had on a similar outfit when they first met at a boot camp class when she was 26. The other men in class couldn’t take their eyes off the platinum blonde, bronzed instructor who had a perfectly sculpted body, but Tony had his eyes scrunched closed for most of the class as he lunged around the room, his white calves flexing. That’s how he bumped into Gwen and almost knocked her into a treadmill. He apologized and pulled his face into exaggerated exhaustion as they neared the end of a set.
“Sorry for knocking you around. Let me make it up to you. How about a shot of wheatgrass?” he said. And when she realized he was joking, she had let him take her for coffee. Sometimes it hardly seemed possible they had been together 10 years.
“How was work?” Tony asked as she sat down with him on the couch.
“Okay,” she said. “There’s some talk about another round of layoffs on the horizon. Sometimes I wish I could be next. I don’t know what’s more stressful—being unemployed or being left behind to take on all the extra projects?”
Her husband turned away from the TV.
“Being unemployed, definitely,” he said. “Want to watch something together?”
Gwen shook her head and went back upstairs to read alone.
The layoffs came the next week and Gwen’s boss gave her three more projects to manage.
“You’ve done such a great job in the last quarter, I know you’ll be up to the challenge of adding to your portfolio,” he said.
Gwen looked out the window of the skyscraper she stood in, out toward the eastern foothills.
“And will this extra work come with extra compensation?” she said.
“Come on, Gwen, we just had to lay people off. If we get our earnings up, maybe we can reevaluate in six months.”
“Okay, but I can’t do the overtime anymore. I have a kid now, and a commute.”
“Don’t make me think I made a mistake keeping you on. You’ve always been a team player.”
Gwen walked away, toward the elevator instead of her cubicle. Her eyes stung and she didn’t want the tears to erupt in the office. She texted Tony to ask if he was free to chat, but he didn’t respond.
She walked out of the office and midday sun bathed the Plaza de Cesar Chavez. She sat on a bench near the fountain and lowered her head into her hands with a deep sigh. As she lifted her head, she was startled to see the man on the white horse again, even more out of place in the city than in her cul-de-sac.
“Guinevere, please don’t weep.”
“What are you doing here? Are you stalking me? Leave me the hell alone.”
Despite her harsh words, Gwen stayed seated on the bench as the man dismounted the horse.
“Guinevere, please, pause for a moment to listen to me.” He held his hand out with a crumpled piece of paper. “A letter, to prove I am here at your behest.”
“It’s Gwen,” she said as she took the letter. She unfolded a crumpled piece of pink paper, faded Lisa Frank lined rainbow heart stationary that almost made the looping purple ink impossible to read. The note held a faint scent of candy apple body spray.
October 10, 1990
I wish you were real and you could come here, and take me away from everything. I hate everything about my life. I thought Jay liked me, but now he’s going to the harvest festival with Cati who is perfect and blond and skinny. She’s like a princess and I’m not. My best friend says maybe Jay doesn’t really like her because he’s always sitting next to me in math class, but I know it’s because he’s just not good at math and I am. I wish for once I could be pretty instead of smart. Then someone would like me and my life wouldn’t be so miserable.
Sincerely, Guinevere “Gwen” Alexandra Garcia
Her name hadn’t been Garcia for almost eight years and her handwriting hadn’t looked like that since she was 12, when she wrote in cursive every day in paper notes to her friends. Gwen didn’t recall writing this particular letter, but she remembered Jay. Her first crush in middle school, he had blond hair, sleepy eyes, and rosy cheeks. He wasn’t particularly cute, but he had been nice to her, and back then that was all it took for her to fall in love. Back then, when she was round with pimples across her cheeks and greasy hair, and a deep-seated belief she would always be unlovable.
She had never told her friends she thought the only reason Jay was nice was because he wanted help in math class. She’d kept that in for this imaginary correspondence with Lancelot. Jay had moved away at the end of middle school to a town in the valley and she hadn’t thought of him after.
She handed the letter back to the man.
“I wrote this a long time ago,” she said. “I don’t need to be rescued anymore.”
Lancelot folded the letter and placed it into a leather satchel that sat across the horse’s flank.
“I will be here for you when you are ready, Guinevere.”
He rode up the plaza and disappeared from sight behind the Tech Museum building.
On a night when Tony put Maddy to bed, Gwen headed out the side gate dressed in a loose pair of sweatpants, flip flops, and a tank top. She dragged the full blue recycle cart down the driveway to the curb in the last light of the day. Lancelot, or Lance as Gwen had started thinking of him, stood next to the Mexican lavender bushes. She had stopped being surprised when he turned up. He didn’t have the horse with him that night.
“A beautiful maiden such as yourself should not be doing such an undistinguished chore,” he said. “Let me do this for you.”
Gwen shook her head no, but Lance rushed ahead, his chain mail clanking in the evening air. He grabbed the gray garbage cart and wheeled it out to the street, his long, dark hair whipping behind him in a sudden gust of wind.
“If you depart with me tonight, we will have an entire court to manage these mundane activities.”
She did hate taking out the trash, but she didn’t say that to Lance. It just happened to coincide with one of the weeknights Tony could be home early enough to put Maddy to bed so it became her job.
“Right, and no indoor plumbing.” She smiled up at Lance’s earnest face. “I don’t mind this. It’s a small thing.”
“If you will not come away with me, then I am sworn to stay and protect you.”
Gwen became used to Lance showing up in random places. He turned up on a Monday night at the grocery store, his dated attire replaced with a pair of dark wash jeans and a button-down shirt in a pale shade of green.
“Guinevere, we could have gourmet meals prepared for us daily, if you come away with me.”
“I like to cook.”
Gwen did like to cook, but she hated grocery shopping.
“Give me half your list,” Lance said. “I will fetch the game and cheese to help you out of here sooner.”
“Don’t you have a dragon to slay or something?”
“I am sworn to protect you, Guinevere.”
“I don’t need protecting, though. My life is fine.”
Lance walked her out to the car in the dark and loaded the groceries into the back of the SUV.
“Thank you,” she said. He took her hand and kissed it before he turned to go.
In late winter, Gwen got up early one day and left before the sun was up. As she approached the levee, she spotted a man in a green jacket with blue running shoes, short hair tucked under a beanie. The man jogged in place at the head of the trail and as Gwen switched from her warm-up walk to a run, she recognized him. Lance, with his hair cut short and workout clothes on his lanky frame.
“Don’t you worry about being out alone in the dark?” he said in his posh accent.
“No. I don’t. Women shouldn’t have to limit their lives to daylight hours in crowds.”
But when she went out alone at first light, her eyes darted across the landscape until the sun brightened the park. On dark mornings she ran at a slower than optimal speed in case someone approached and she needed to sprint away.
Once when the park was near empty and dim across the plateau, a man in a torn jacket had approached her. She changed directions and he changed with her, cutting across wet grass. Gwen picked up her pace and tried to discreetly glance over her shoulder to gauge his distance. Her heart raced that morning and she’d sped toward a couple walking a dog in the far distance. But now, this morning, she had Lance next to her and her heart rate went up just because of the cardio.
They ran to the end of her three-mile route and she told him about running cross-country in high school.
“It was the only sport I was ever any good at,” she said. “Running away from things.”
“Or perhaps you were running toward something,” he said.
Before she turned the corner to her cul-de-sac, he touched her hand. A light sweat made the golden hairs on his wrist glisten. He pulled her hand up to his rosy lips and kissed it like he’d done once before. She pulled her hand away.
“Don’t,” she said. “I have to go.”
That night while Maddy slept and Tony watched TV, Gwen sat at the dining room table and checked her work email. Despite her protests to her boss about working overtime, she spent uncompensated time trying to keep her inbox under control. If the unread messages crept up above 100, Gwen’s chest tightened when she opened up the app on her phone or in a browser.
“Are you okay?” Tony asked as he passed her on the way into the kitchen.
“Yeah, just trying to get caught up.” She rubbed her eyes, her contacts itchy, as she yawned.
“I’m going up to bed,” Tony said. “Early morning. I have court tomorrow.”
“I’ll be up in a bit,” she said.
She read thirty more emails and Maddy started crying over the baby monitor.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” she said into the dark room, then lifted the baby out of the crib.
“Water, Momma. Water.”
Gwen filled the pink cup from the bathroom, the one they used when Maddy brushed her teeth twice a day, and held the cup up to her daughter’s lips.
“Here, baby. Take a drink.”
In the rocking chair that she had nursed Maddy in for a year and a half, she sat with her daughter in her arms and patted the toddler’s small back. Gwen sang an out-of-tune lullaby and felt her daughter’s body go heavy in her arms as the girl fell asleep.
Maddy’s breathing became still and even as Gwen placed her back in the crib. In her own room, Tony snored on his side of the bed. Gwen brushed her teeth in the dark and undressed, pulling a tank top over her bare skin before she climbed into bed. Just as she drifted off to sleep, Maddy cried again and Gwen jumped out of bed to settle her. The rest of the night continued on repeat and when the sun came up, Gwen saw Maddy’s cheeks flushed red with fever.
“What does your day look like?” Gwen asked Tony when he got out of the shower. “We can’t send her to daycare.”
“I have court today. Can you stay home today? I can do tomorrow if she’s still sick.”
Gwen and Tony took turns at home after three days, slipping work into the gaps of the day while Maddy napped. By the fourth day, Maddy was well enough to return to daycare. But by then Gwen’s throat burned and she knew she’d caught whatever virus her daughter had carried into the house.
As Tony departed with Maddy, Gwen turned away from their kisses.
“Don’t want to get you sick.”
Without showering or putting her contacts in, she settled on the couch to check work email on her laptop until fatigue caught up with her. She stretched out on the couch “just for a moment,” she told herself, and didn’t know how much time had passed when she woke up to the smell of chicken soup wafting from the kitchen.
Someone had taken the laptop away and plugged it in by the end table and covered her with the soft throw blanket Maddy used for pillow forts.
Gwen sat up without her glasses on and swiveled around toward the kitchen where Lance stood over a pot.
“What are you doing here?” she said. “You can’t be here.”
Without her glasses on, she watched the outline of Lance’s shoulders as he ladled soup into a bowl and carried it to the table.
“I thought you needed someone to take care of you,” he said. “You always take care of the rest of us.”
Gwen moved to the table where Lance had laid out a cloth napkin. She dipped a spoon into the bowl and it tasted the way her mother used to make it when she was a girl, with chunks of chicken, carrots, celery and a squeeze of Meyer lemon. While she ate, she watched Lance move around the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher, wiping down the counters.
“When you are feeling better, we should get away,” he said.
“No. I told you. I don’t need to be rescued. I’m fine.”
The man walked toward the end table and picked up Gwen’s glasses and brought them to her. She put them on and he came into focus. The short brown hair, the blue eyes, the nose with the same curve as Maddy’s, the lips she had kissed a thousand times.
“I don’t want to rescue you,” her husband said. “But I know how hard you work, how much you do for Maddy. You don’t have to do everything alone. I just mean we could rent a place by the coast, leave Maddy with your parents, and take a little break.”
Tony came up behind her and put his hand against her warm forehead, then leaned down to kiss the top of her unwashed head.
Gwen took another bite of the soup and relaxed into the comfort of his touch.