by Admiral Biscuit

Chapter 1: Western Star

Western Star

Admiral Biscuit

She’s sitting in the passenger seat of my Caravan. The seat is all the way forward—I’m loaded to the gills, carrying cargo back to Michigan from a convention. I guess that makes me an honorary roadie.

She’s got her hooves up on the dash. I don’t know if that’s because it’s more comfortable for her to sit that way, or if she just wants a better view of the Ohio countryside.

“Sure are a lot of orange barrels,” she remarks.

“It’s road construction season.”

“Where do they come from?”

“The barrels?”

She nods. “Somebody must make them, and they must be kept somewhere when they’re not on the roads.”

“I’ve seen storage lots. They all stack. I don’t know where they come from, though. Some factory, I guess. Probably in China.”

“Is that far?”

“The other side of the world.”

She nods, then goes back to contemplating the endless line of orange barrels.

A semi flashes its headlights at me and I change lanes to get out of its way.

I don’t know her or where she came from. She was just there in the parking lot of the Mahoning Valley Service Plaza and I was too surprised to say no when she asked for a ride. Besides, sometimes it’s lonely to drive alone.

I’m racing the sun, hoping to get off the Ohio Turnpike before sunset, but that isn’t going to happen. I lost too much time in Maryland, where they’d been picking an overturned dump truck off of I-70. That two-hour delay had been followed by a torrential downpour.

An ivy-covered barn is on the left. I wonder if the turnpike paved over the land the barn used to serve. C. W. McCall said something about that in a song.

She stays silent until we start to drop into the Cuyahoga Valley. “I used to think that humans built those like fake trees.”

She’s pointing to a line of pylons.

“Fake trees?”

“Yeah, ‘cause your ancestors were monkeys, and monkeys climb trees. Everyone knows that.”

“You do know what they’re actually for, right?”

“Yeah. Wires. And the ones that don’t have wires are for radio, like in your van.” She yawns and shifts her rump on the seat.

“Long day?”

“Riding in a car makes me sleepy.”

“I can stop if you need to stretch your legs.”

“I’m okay,” she says, and goes back to studying the scenery.

She says her name is Western Star. That sounds fake, like she just read it on something. But I don’t press the issue. She might be running from something and anyway it’s not like I can look her up later.

“Do you want anything to drink?”

“Hmm?” She turns her head to look at me.

“I got water, Coke, Vernors—“

“What’s a Vernors?”

“Ginger ale.”

“I’ve never had a Vernors before.”

I always keep a duffel bag full of drinks and snacks right behind the front seats. Never wind up eating the snacks, but it’s always nice to know that they’re there if I want them.

I reach behind the seat and blindly select two bottles of Cherry Coke before I finally get a Vernors.

“Do you need me to open it?”

“I can do it.”

I have to remind myself to pay attention to the road instead of watching her open the bottle. She grips it between her hooves and bites down on the cap, twisting it off that way.

She keeps the cap in her mouth as she drinks half the bottle, then twists is back on the same way she removed it.

She can’t put it in the cup holder, though—I have to do that for her.


“You’re welcome. How’d you like it?”

“Fizzy. And the ginger burned a bit.”

“That’s the effervescence they advertise.”

“Yeah.” She turns to look up ahead. “Looks like they’re actually working here.”

“They do a lot of highway work at night now. There’s less traffic, plus it’s cooler.”

“Makes sense.”

She’s got a yellow bow in her mane and bigger one around her tail, and I can’t help but wonder if they clip on. How else could she wear them with hooves? It’s the only thing she’s got—she isn’t carrying a bag or wearing a pack.

Her cutie mark is the same dark pink as her mane and tail, and it’s bows, too. She must really like bows.

Up ahead, on the other side of the turnpike, there’s a row of Caterpillar dump trucks all lined up, and a man in a white hard hat walking down the row like a general inspecting his troops.

We’re shifted to the left, one lane running on the shoulder. Oncoming semis are leaned in towards the barrier, seemingly in danger of tipping.

A Ford Flex edges by on the right. A brown-haired girl in a sundress is in the back seat, and her eyes get big when she sees my passenger. She waves, and Western Star waves back, then the Flex moves past. It’s on its way back to Illinois, if the license plate is any indication.

“You must get that a lot.”

She nods. “Not as much when I’m in a truck, since it sits up higher.”

“Probably made that little girl’s day,” I say. “She’ll remember you for years.”

“If we were in opposite lanes, she never would’ve seen me or known I was in your van. Or she could have been looking the other way or sitting on the other side or reading a book . . . how much do we miss that we never know?”

“Ships passing in the night.” I flick the turn signal stalk, merge into the slower lane. “I think about that sometimes. When I was a kid, my family moved a lot, and I’d meet people that I never would have, people who’d had a life without me and went on to become close friends.” Or you and me, I don’t say.

I haven’t asked her yet where she’s staying for the night. I could put her up if she needs a place even though it’s stupid to invite strangers into your home. Maybe she’d rather sleep outside.

I’ve got a moment of deja-vu as I see a pair of broadcast towers silhouetted against the sunset sky. One’s got a red light, one’s got a white light. Last year—or was it the year before?—I was making the same run, also trying to beat the sunset, and I didn’t that time either.

It’s probably already dark in Baltimore.

A service plaza passes by, the last one before I get off the turnpike in Toledo. Or is there one more? Ohio stretches on forever. At least it’s more interesting than Kansas.

She yawns again. “Sorry. It’s getting dark.”

“I can turn on the map light.” I reach up and click the lens. “Does that help?”

“Yeah. It’s weird how much different the highway looks at night. I can’t decide if it’s better to see all the cars and trucks lit up, or the scenery passing by.”

“I’m not sure, either.”

I flash my lights to let a semi towing a livestock trailer in, and hope that she won’t ask why the trailer is full of holes.

She doesn’t.

“There’s a service plaza coming up,” I tell her. “Last one before my exit.”

“Are you kicking me out?”

“No! I just—I don’t know what your plans are. After this, it’ll be harder to find a safe place.”

Her ears flick. “I can take care of myself.”

“Sure.” I slow down anyway, and angle off on the ramp. “I gotta use the bathroom, and if you want something more substantial than gorp to snack on.”


“Um, trail mix. Raisins and peanuts and M&Ms.” I have no idea how she’ll eat it if she decides she wants some. I guess she can just stick her snout in the bag.

I park the van but don’t get out.

“Where are you going again?”

“Small town in Michigan that nobody’s ever heard of.”

“I’ve never been to Michigan.”

“Where are you trying to go?”

She shrugs. “Anywhere. I’d like to see the big open skies out west, or maybe California. The Pacific ocean. There’s a lot of America to see.”

“There’s a truck stop not that far out of Ann Arbor, right on I-94. That would be a good spot to get another ride.” Back in the sixties, it was safe to hitchhike across the country. Stand by the side of the highway and wait for someone to stop.

“You need to come in? Use the bathroom or something?”

“I’m fine—can I wait in your van?”


I’m as quick as I can be; it’s nagging at the back of my mind that I’ll come out and she’ll be gone or my van will.

Both are still there when I return.

She’s been most of the way up and down the East Coast. She’s a little bit vague about how long she’s been hitchhiking, and I don’t press the issue. It’s none of my business anyway.

I haven’t seen many cops, which is a relief. Maybe they’re taking the day off, or maybe they’re all busy somewhere else.

Every time I get to a tollbooth, I worry that I haven’t got enough money or that I’ve lost my ticket, and I fumble around on the dash looking for it before I get off the turnpike. What happens when people can’t pay? Are they stuck forever on the turnpike, modern-day Flying Dutchmen?

It’s easy to get lost in Toledo, because I-75 and I-475 are always under construction, so I pay close attention to the signs as I navigate, and a few minutes later we’re back in Michigan.

There isn’t much to see. Past Temperance she finally succumbs to the soothing white noise of the tires on the road and the wind over the van; her head’s down and her eyes are closed.

Where does she sleep? The passenger seat of cars and trucks? Behind the bushes at truck stops and service areas? And what about personal hygiene?

I can’t kick her out of the van in the middle of the night.

The cloverleaf from US-23 to I-94 wakes her up and she looks around in puzzlement before spotting a road sign.

“Sorry I fell asleep. Did I miss anything?”

“Not really.” I punch the button to reactivate the cruise control. “Look, I’m going to be blunt. I don’t feel right just leaving you at a truck stop in the middle of the night. If we stop at a hotel, that’ll be safer, and I’ll feel better.”

“You said you have to go to work tomorrow.”

“I do, so we’d have to leave early, like six.”

“I’m not that kind of a mare, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I wasn’t.” I’m not that kind of man.

There’s a Hampton Inn on Jackson Road, and I get us a room with two beds. The clerk at the counter is a consummate professional and doesn’t bat an eye at the sight of her, or my request for a sack full of shampoo and a brush.

Our room is on the second floor, with a sideways view of the highway. Not the best choice, but I didn’t pick the room for the view.

It’s a typical hotel room: big TV on the wall, two beds, a chair, a table, and an alarm clock. Nice enough, but nothing really special.

I’ve got my overnight bag, and she’s got nothing but her bows.

I hand her the pile of toiletries and she heads off to the bathroom. This is one of the hotels that’s got a second sink outside the bathroom, so I dig for my toothbrush.

She flushes and starts the shower and I spit out the toothpaste and consider what I’m going to wear to bed. I’ve got one pair of clean underwear left, or today’s will serve and I can put on clean in the morning.

Beds are the hotel equivalent of airplane seats: hallway or window. I should have asked which one she wants. I know that I would prefer the one closest to the window, so I take the other one, settling in under the covers.

Her hooves are loud against the bathtub and it feels voyeuristic to listen, but I can’t not hear them and while I could switch beds, it feels awkward to have used one for a few minutes and then reject it for the other. Even though I consciously know that hundreds of hotel guests have used this bed and these pillows, getting into an unmade hotel bed would be uncomfortable for me, and I have to assume she would have the same feelings.

I’ve made my bed, now I have to lie in it.

It’s not easy shaking off the road. I’m tired, but my mind is still active, and while it would have been easier to be asleep when she came out of the bathroom, I’m not.

Her nakedness in the backlight from the bathroom is all the more apparent, unignorable, and I don’t know what the right answer is. I close my eyes again and pretend to be asleep and then remember that I haven’t set an alarm yet.

In my experience, hotel alarm clocks can’t be trusted, so I give up the comfortable fiction and pick up my phone.

She’s getting herself comfortable, nesting amidst the pillows and comforter and too-tucked-in sheets and with my phone on the nightstand between the beds, I have no choice but to observe her out of the corner of my eye.

Some little part of my brain is waiting for an invitation, but none is forthcoming.

She arranges her pillows the way she wants them and flops down with her back to me. I get the alarm set on my phone, set it back on the table, and lay on my back, wondering if I should say good night or not.

Sleep doesn’t come easily, nor is it good. I have never been much of a hotel sleeper, and now is not the exception. She left the bathroom light on and it’s not glaring enough to be an issue, but it does provide more than enough light to highlight her sleeping form whenever I look over in that direction. The very human—if I ignore the ears—spill of her hair across the pillow.

When the alarm sounds, it feels as if I haven’t slept at all. I know that I must have, because there is a moment of disorientation as I reach for my phone to shut off the alarm. The curtain isn’t all the way shut, and I can see sunlight creeping through the edges.

She jerks her head up as well, her ears focusing on the source of the noise before her head rises, and then our eyes meet for just a moment and slide off awkwardly, even though we did nothing to regret or celebrate. I fumble with the touchscreen and then silence it, along with an ad for cloud computing services.

I have nothing to pack, and neither does she, so I exploit the snooze function of my phone twice before finally deciding that it’s time to actually get up. It takes me a minute of rummaging through my bag to find my clean underwear, and I go to the bathroom to change.

When I finish, she’s in the little alcove, brushing her mane, and I almost trip over her. She’s got the coffee maker started, and it’s gurgling happily as it fills a paper cup.

It doesn’t take her all that long to finish getting ready and it feels oddly intimate that she didn’t put her bows on in private.

The hotel probably has a continental breakfast of sorts. Maybe a little room with over-sugared muffins in plastic bags and plastic single-serve cereals, or else they might have a proper breakfast that’s way overpriced. Neither of us feels like finding out, so we go downstairs.

I have to go through the motions at the counter, while she stands off behind me, skimming the headlines of USA Today. I wonder what she thinks about American news? Another thing I won’t ask.

Getting back in the van ends the awkwardness. Now we’re moving again, now we have a purpose. A destination, even if it’s close.

“We can get breakfast at McDonald’s, if you want.”

One of the truck stops on Parker Road has another fast food restaurant in it, but I can’t remember which one. An Arby’s, or maybe a Wendy’s.

Neither have breakfast at standalone restaurants as far as I know, but do at truck stops and oases.

“That’s fine.”

Jackson Road is a divided road and for just a moment I can picture her grazing in the center median. Can ponies eat wild grass?

“Have you been to a McDonald’s?” They’re not exactly high in vegetarian options.

“A few times.” She’s watching the steady passage of storefronts along either side of the road. A Ford dealership, big box stores like Meijer, and countless other smaller stores that I’ll never visit. “Their pancakes are okay.”

“There’s one that’s close to the truck stop. Or—” What else is there? The light changes and we pass an Arby’s and a Taco Bell in close succession. “I think—there’s a Panera back there. They’ve got good bagels if you like them.”

“You don’t have to go anywhere special on my account. Food’s food.”

I hate turning around and going back and maybe she does too, so I don’t. We’re going to McDonald’s and then I’m going to drop her off at the truck stop.

I get us two Big Breakfasts, one without the sausage patty in case that offends her. The squeeze-tubes of jelly give her trouble.

“Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair,” I mutter.


“Oh, nothing. Do you want me to open your syrup?”

She sighs. “I feel like a foal.”

I peel open the corner and then set it back down. She takes the little packet in her mouth and dumps it over her pancakes.

I still have so many questions. I’m afraid to ask them, and I know I’m a coward for it. If I offend her and she walks off, so what? That’s what’s going to happen in a few minutes anyway. Once we’re done eating and I get to the truck stop, and any chance I’d had to ask the questions that were burning at my mind were gone forever.

She doesn’t use a knife and fork; she just leans down and nibbles at her pancakes and licks her muzzle off when they’re gone.

It’s time for us to move on.

Sometimes in restaurants there’s that awkward time where the bill hasn’t come yet and there’s no more conversation to be had, but that’s not the case at McDonald’s.

I take our tray to the wastebasket and then we go back out to my van.

She could have walked to the truck stop. It’s across five lanes of traffic and a little bit to the north, but I drive her just the same.

I could stop in front of the door but that isn’t quite right.

I feel like an imposter as I nose my way through the cluster of idling semis and let her out near the scales. I have to reach across again to get the door for her and my arm briefly brushes up against her chest.

I know she knows what she’s doing but it feels like defeat as she steps out of my van.

“Good luck,” I say. “Be safe.”

“Thanks.” She hesitates, then pushes the door shut. I expect her to move away, but she goes around the front of the van and stands up by my window. “Thanks for the ride, and— “

I nod. If I had a business card or something with my phone number on it, I’d give it to her, but i don’t. Still, it feels important that she be able to contact me if she ever needs to, so I write it on the back of a fuel receipt. “Just in case you need it.”

I know she’ll never call, but it eases my mind to know that she could. A little slip of thermal paper, held in her mouth for the moment.

What must it be like to be able to drift around with nothing? Wanting nothing and needing nothing? A fantasy, a modern-day Huck Finn drifting down the Mississippi, something that I’ve always wanted to do but never have.

My carpentry skills and raft-building skills are lacking, but thanks to the modern miracles of plastic drums and expanding foam, I could always make a raft if I wanted to.

She’s still in my rearview mirror until I turn onto Parker Road, and then she’s gone.

I’ll never see her again.

There’s a bit of her scent still in the van. That will fade in time.

She’s still on my mind as I turn into my driveway. The half-empty bottle of Vernors is a reminder, at least as long as I choose to leave it there.

If she’s lucky in picking a truck—and I think she was—she might be as far west as Kalamazoo already, or maybe further.

Author's Note

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