Story Time With Hank | Story Time With Coyote, Part 4
Happy day, children. The end is nigh. Part 4 is the long-awaited final chapter in the magical epic that has been, “Story Time With Coyote.” It started with a lost bet and ends…well you’ll have to read it to find out.
Having slept like the dead for an hour, alternately curling up into a smaller ball and stretching out so his legs stuck straight off the edge of the hatbox and his head dangled down one side, Tijuana yawned, licked a paw, and jumped off the table. He padded away around the corner, taking my sole excuse not to open the box with him.
But I kept on not opening it, anyway.
The unicorn was laughing. It was reared up on its hind legs in a field gone muddy with the blood of people I’d studied alongside and shared bathrooms with for four long years, and it was laughing.
Becky hit it with a bolt of lightning.
The laugh became a howl, and the unicorn was on its side, writhing in the tall grass. And then it wasn’t.
As if a switch somewhere had been flicked, the light from the unicorn blinked off. When our eyes adjusted to the relative darkness of the full moon, it was gone. We were alone, the seven of us still on our feet, in the most gruesome little meadow on earth.
“See if anyone else made it,” Becky said.
Rodrigo was already rousing Granddad. His arm was broken pretty bad, but otherwise he was fine. None of the others we checked could say the same.
Granddad looked around the clearing. Half the kids he’d been responsible for were in pieces all around him.
With a gesture and a grunt of effort, he carved six graves out of the earth; with a few more motions, he lowered the bodies into them and smoothed the dirt over.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
The van was about a mile away. We hiked there in silence. I don’t know what the others were feeling. I was numb to the world, myself—wouldn’t feel much of anything for days—but it had to be worse for the rest of them. I’d kept my classmates at Corr-Prep at arms length the whole time I’d been there. They were fixtures in my life, the only people I knew, the faces I saw around me all day everyday, and when the part of my brain that processed such things woke up again, it would hurt to lose them. But for the others, the kids who’d died had been friends at least and sometimes more. Layla had lost a younger brother.
As we walked, the woods got thinner and thinner and then ended. There was the van, quietly thinking van-thoughts fifty yards ahead.
I dug in my pocket for the keys, and the world turned white.
“Agh, what the hell?” someone complained.
Our eyes adjusted: the world wasn’t white at all, it was just lit up brighter than a summer afternoon.
The unicorn was floating in the air directly above us. Its breathing was labored, one side of its body raw, shiny-red and hairless.
It opened its mouth and snakes of flame gushed forth, writhing and snapping their jaws independently of one another.
“Aw, come on,” said Wayne, then one of the serpents wrapped itself around him, simultaneously burning and crushing him until all that remained of snake or person was a glowing lump of charcoal the size of basketball.
Sue was swallowed whole by a second snake, and a third took Martha. Becky conjured a water-mongoose that closed its jaws around the neck of the one making for her and shook it into a cloud of steam, then chased after another. Layla put up a ward of some kind. Rodrigo and I fled.
We headed for the van, just because it was there, I guess. I could feel the heat from the snakes that pursued us. My back sweated, and I tried to run harder. We both reached out to magic the door open and one of us succeeded because it swung wide and we dove inside. Rodrigo landed mostly on top of me and he reached back and slammed the door and two fiery snakes crashed into it. We grinned at each other. Then the serpents wrapped themselves around the body of the van and started squeezing. The sides of the vehicle groaned under the strain and crept slowly towards us. It started to get awfully hot.
Stuff was happening outside, but I couldn’t tell you what. There were screams, human and unicorn, and crashes. Flashes of light. But details were lost behind coils of flame and a rippling veil of heat.
The van was hotter towards the front where the snakes had a tighter grip. The windshield was a bit more liquid than you like to see. Rodrigo and I huddled as far back as we were able, did what we could to keep cool magically, and played chicken with the threat of an exploding gas tank. We were losing our nerve, about to leap out the back hatch and take our chances with whatever waited outside, when the lights went off for the second time that night. And not just the white light of the unicorn, but the flickering orange of the fiery snakes as well. They were gone.
I looked at Rodrigo. He looked back. Then he opened the door, and we stepped outside.
The grass still burned in spots between the van and the edge of the forest. On the ground ten feet in front of us, Layla lay on her back, eyes open, chest still. Granddad and Becky, both bleeding from countless cuts, both charred around the edges, were bent at the waist, hands on hips, gasping for air. Behind them was the unicorn.
It lay at the center of a spreading circle of black blood. It was in two pieces.
That was pretty much the end of magic for me. We hitched and hiked our way back home, I slept for two days, then I packed up my stuff and hit the road.
I got a job, did the technical school thing, became a mechanic. I like it well enough. No one’s ever dismembered.
Granddad and I didn’t talk much for about four years, and then he died. No one’s really sure how. His body turned up one morning right next to the paper on the porch of a friend of his. Some say a demon did it, some say a djinn, some say something else. It doesn’t make much difference. That was eight months ago.
So I opened the box eventually. I didn’t mean to leave you hanging. Or I did, really, but only for narrative effect, not to be a jerk or anything. Sorry just the same.
Inside was red tissue paper. I had a hard time picturing Granddad standing in the wrapping paper aisle of his local grocery store. Had he considered the bows as well? I smiled in spite of the gravity of opening a gift from my deceased grandfather-guardian-mentor. But maybe that’s normal. I don’t know. I’ve only done it the one time.
Beneath the tissue paper, on a bed of more tissue paper, was a rear-view mirror. It had been a rear-view mirror at one time, anyway, though calling it that now might be generous. Most of the glass was gone, and what remained, a crescent in the bottom right corner stretching about midway along the lower edge, was more crack than mirror. The plastic was warped, the rounded rectangle of your common rear-view mirror gone all frowny-faced. Like it had melted in a very hot car.
Yes, it was the very same mirror that had once hung from the ceiling of my own ill-fated Ford Econoline, evidently recovered at some point by an old man retracing his steps. It took me longer than you to figure it out, but to be fair, I didn’t have a helpful narrator leading the way. Granddad hadn’t bothered with a note. Or maybe he died before he could figure out what to say. That probably would have been the case even without the mysterious circumstances what cut his time short. Words came hard for the man.
So what does the mirror mean? I don’t know. I guess it’s open to interpretation. Could be it’s an olive branch, a belated blessing of the life I’ve chosen for myself. Or perhaps it’s a last-ditch call for me to take a look in the mirror, examine what I’ve become, maybe remember the trouble my mechanical dabbling literally drove us to those years ago. That would be a bummer.
Mostly I don’t care what it was meant to mean. It’s sitting on the table in front of me as I write this. When I look at it, I do remember the unicorn, and the blood and the fear it brought with it. But I also remember those hours in the evening after school when I monkeyed around under the hood of that van and found a kind of sense I never saw in grimoires.
So it’s pretty confusing. I’m going to bed.
When he was little, Hank Henry made a horn out of purple felt and fastened it to his cat’s head with a rubber-band chin strap. It was a magical experience. If you’ve had a magical experience, you should send it to [email protected].