Beyond our bunkhouse, there is a field, and in the field there are horses, six or seven of them dotting the horizon, almost one for each of us girls. The horses are strong and powerful. When I touch their manes, I feel things, though I cannot say exactly what. I try only to touch the horses when my friend is nearby. She holds their bridles and tells them to be still and they listen. My friend’s name is Leigh and the horse she loves is named Chestnut. Neither of us mentions that this is not an imaginative name for a chestnut-colored horse, though it is obvious. That we’re both here because we have been bad — the worst, most terrible kind of bad — is also obvious, but we do not talk about this either.
In the afternoons before dinner, the sisters march us across the fields and through a band of trees to a long big brick building. We can see houses through the trees, but the sisters tell us to keep our eyes on the head of the girl in front of us. Leigh’s short hair is the color of sweet potatoes, and when she lifts her chin to look at the sky, I remember what it used to look like, before she found a pair of scissors and cut off her braid when the sisters weren’t looking. The wind blows through the pear trees at the top of the hill, a stream of white petals spinning through the air and past us, catching in our hair. One lands on my lip and I pull it into my mouth with my tongue, holding it there like communion. Leigh says that because of the playground and the fields the big brick building is obviously a school. My school was the front room of our farmhouse, where mama taught me and seven other kids from the church. Leigh has told me very little about school, except that, like most places, it is better than here. On a long stretch of pavement, someone has painted a map in pretty colors. Leigh says it is a map of the United States of America, which is the country where we live. The sisters say we should stand on the state where we’re from and think about what we need to do if we’d like to go back. Leigh shows me North Carolina and we stand on it together and Leigh tells one of the sisters how she and I are already in the state we’re from and asks how we can go back if we’re already here, but the sister just flicks a pebble across the pavement at us with the toe of her leather shoe and tells Leigh to please tighten her ponytail because she is tired of looking at all those flyaways.
There is a playground with a slide and along the fence there are balls we could maybe kick or play catch with but the sisters make us stand on our states and it is starting to get cold and we are shivering in our skirts, even with our knee-highs pulled up to our thighs. One girl gets tired and tries to sit down and the sisters say she must not want to go home very badly. My legs start to ache but I stay where I am. Eventually, the sisters lead us back across the field and Leigh whispers to me that she is going to run away. She is going find the boy whose fault it is she’s here. When I ask what she will do then, she says, I’ll marry him. I would rather stay here forever than marry the boy whose fault it is I’m here, even though there is little I recall of him besides big hands, a sour, wet mouth, and saying yes even though I meant no.
After dinner, I am supposed to meet Leigh back in the stable to brush the horses but Leigh never arrives. I stay in there until dark and eventually I get up the courage to put the brush and my palm to Chestnut’s flank. Chestnut is warm and I rest my forehead and the tip of my nose on her wide belly while I brush her hide in slow circles and I picture Leigh running out through the fields and the forest and all the way across the map of the United States of America, and I just hope the moon is still full when she gets wherever it is she is going.