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Story Time With Hank | Story Time With Coyote, Part 3

unicorn
Hank Henry

Afternoon, folks. Hope you’re having a good one. And if you weren’t before, that’s all about to change. We’ve got the third installment in the epic of Coyote all written out in words and ready to be read.

But perhaps you’ve missed the previous episodes. I can’t imagine how that’s possible, but let’s just say you have. No big thing, friends. Read Part 1, then read Part 2, then come back right back here and read Part 3. Let’s get into it:

***

 For a week we wandered the dense Appalachian forest, using magic and a handheld GPS to keep from losing our way. It was kind of a ham-fisted search, to be honest; we had no plan, no methodical, grid-based system to keep things thorough and organized, no system at all, actually. We hiked, and we hoped. On two occasions we saw what might have been a hoof-print or, just as easily, nothing at all. None of us knew the first thing about tracking. It’s possible unicorns don’t even leave tracks.

That was another problem. There’s not a bounty of reliable reference material regarding unicorns. Allusions a-plenty, going back thousands of years, but nothing concrete. Most people agree they have one horn. In wizarding circles, unicornology stands above and apart from other pursuits; it’s a field that most everyone magical dabbles in at one time or another, but few will admit to it at parties. Still, on certain rare nights, when a cold wind taps its bare, wooden fingers against the window of some wizard’s parlor, when armchairs have been conjured up close to the fire and two-and-half brandies have been consumed, then close friends will talk in hushed tones about unicorns, and the hair on their necks will stand straight up. In daylight, they’ll pretend the conversation never happened.

So it was, overladen with awe and ambition, ignorance and embarrassment (and under-laden with anything as useful as mosquito repellent) that we, the fourteen of us, loudly combed the woods for a creature of legend—for the creature of legend.

We were all a bit overwhelmed when we found it.

***

A few days earlier, the night before we left, I’d been throwing some extra clothes, socks mainly, into a backpack, preparing to strike out into the wild, when Granddad had stepped into my room, closing the door behind him. I don’t know why he closed the door behind him since, like I said, I lived at his house, not the school, and we were the only the people there. But he did. I remember it clearly.

“I want to talk to you,” he said. I said okay.

He sat down on the edge of my bed. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine.”

He nodded his head for like a minute-and-a-half. We hadn’t had a heart-to-heart in years, or maybe ever, and it didn’t come easy.

“Your work is suffering, kid, and it has been for a while. Your fingering is sloppy, your willpower’s weak. I’m worried about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“I notice you’ve been spending a lot of time working on that van.”

“Yep.”

“There’s nothing wrong with having hobbies. Hobbies are fine. But you’ve got to be careful you don’t lose focus on what really matters.”

I pretended the socks in my bag needed rearranging something awful.

“You know,” he said, “some people, they believe that a unicorn can set a man on the path he’s meant to walk. That they can shine a light against the, uh, the fog of life, you might say, and make everything clear. Separate the signal from the noise, to use a different metaphor. Do you get me? I’m trying to say, maybe—some people think so—maybe a unicorn can show a guy the man he’s meant to be.” He stood up and went to the door, opened it, and paused on the threshold.

“I, uh…anyway. Might be we’ll find out.”

***

Several long days of hard living passed. The moon was inching up over the horizon to join the stars already waiting for it in the sky overhead. We were trudging back to the van, which was a stupid thing to do in the dark, but fuck it, we were wizards, we were pissed, and we’d be damned if we spent another night in those bullshit woods. We came upon a creature grazing at the center of a clearing and just about walked right by.

It didn’t look the way they do on little girls’ trapper-keepers. It was gray, for one thing, like it worked in a coal mine. And it was skinnier than I’d expected, more like a deer than a thoroughbred. Its legs were muddy. It brushed at a fly with its tail. Then we saw the horn: ivory, a little over a foot long, tightly spiraled like a cone of soft serve ice cream pulled by an expert.

I forgot to breathe for a while.

Granddad kept us from losing our shit completely, though. He gestured, and we fanned out to surround the clearing as silently as a bunch of kids who didn’t leave the house much could. My heart was a hummingbird trapped behind my ribcage; I was certain the unicorn would hear us tripping through the underbrush, that it would lift its head with a start, cock its ears and bolt into the woods where we’d never find it again.

I saw Becky hiding behind a tree to my left and a kid named Rodrigo behind a log to my right. Kelly and Tammy to either side of them. Here and there a glimpse of an arm or a leg as the others got where they needed to be. And then the circle was complete, the unicorn still chewing placidly at its center.

Granddad stepped out from the treeline, his arms held wide and his palms forward, careful to avoid any sudden movements. The unicorn seemed not to notice him at all. Becky stepped from behind her cover, and the rest of us did the same, nice and easy and as non-threatening as possible. We were maybe eight feet away when the unicorn lifted its head from its lunch and we stopped cold where we stood, fourteen wizards or almost-wizards sweating bullets in an ungainly ring around one skinny, mythological horse.

“Hello, unicorn. We mean you no harm.,” Granddad said.

The unicorn blinked at him.

“We’ve come quite a ways to find you, and searched for quite a while. We’ve heard tales of your wisdom, and we hoped that you might share some of it with us.” Granddad waited. “I mean, if you do that kind of—”

“I WILL TELL YOU OF YOUR FUTURE,” the unicorn said. Or not exactly said. When the unicorn spoke, its lips never moved, and we didn’t so much hear its voice as we felt it, like thunder vibrating through our soft parts. Grass rippled and leaves were borne into the air.

“Excellent.” Granddad shot me a look of triumph. “That’s just what we had in mind. Perhaps we could just start with Coyote, over there by your left fl—“

“COYOTE WILL DIE,” the unicorn said.

“Excuse me? What—”

“ AND YOU WILL DIE. YOU WILL ALL OF YOU DIE.”

The unicorn began to glow white like the moon. It grew brighter and brighter, so bright it made my teeth ache. Its muscles swelled just as the light did, and it looked, suddenly, exactly like something you might see on a little girl’s trapper-keeper.

It kicked out with its back legs and crushed Kelly’s skull like a can of Coke.

Then it was lunging at Granddad. Where a less seasoned man might have wasted time blinking, he cast himself a shield, so he wasn’t impaled, he was just flipped end over end through the air and into a tree trunk. His arm snapped, his head hit wood and he crumpled to the ground.

Across the clearing, Frank made a break for it, the first of us to get over his shock and start hauling ass, but before his second step hit dirt the unicorn was on him. It caught his wrist in its mouth and ripped his arm clear off, then stamped him into the ground like a snake.

Others were running then, but no one was making it into the trees—there might as well have been a fence around the clearing. It was so fast. Too fast. Impossibly fast.

The unicorn was tearing someone’s throat out around the edge of the woods when Tammy, at the center of the meadow, figured it out.

“It’s telep—” she screamed, then the unicorn drove its horn through her chest. I hadn’t moved from my original spot, and I watched as the beast lifted her off the ground. For a second, I thought maybe now, while it tried to free its horn, we could escape, we could get away clean. Then Tammy exploded.

The unicorn rose up on its powerful back legs, bared its teeth, red, like the rest of it, with the blood of my classmates, and bellowed at the oblivious moon. It was a wordless, ululating cry that peeled the leaves from the trees and brought me to my knees, hands pressed ineffectively over bleeding ears. The unicorn was laughing.

TO BE CONCLUDED…NEXT WEEK

***

Hank Henry went walking in the woods one time, years ago, and came back covered in ticks. He didn’t feel clean again for days. Have you ever been in the woods? Or outdoors? Or indoors? Tell Hank all about it at [email protected]

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