My sister was screaming from the staircase.
I tried to get to her but, I couldn’t move my head. My arms felt super heavy. My hands made hard clattering sounds against the wall that edged my bed. I was freezing. My High School Musical comforter was nowhere to be found. I must have kicked it off in my sleep, as usual.
Something was holding my head down on my pillow. I rolled my eyes upward and saw what it was. I mean, I didn’t understand it, but I saw it. Something was sticking out of my forehead and straight into the wall. Some kind of… pole or something? I struggled to move my head but it was so heavy. I could wiggle it a little, but I couldn’t pull the pole-thing free. WTF? Did someone hit me in the head with something while I was asleep? Oh, my God, I have to get it out! Is it hurting my brain? Is my skull fractured? Am I brain-dead?
Panic ran an electric shock through my spinal cord. My heavy erratic breathing made my lips flap like flags in a tornado. Really noisy. Something on top of my head twitched at the sound. My ear? Was my freaking ear on the top of my head? I was seriously flipping out.
I could hear my mom comforting my sister on the landing, halfway down the stairs. My sister was crying and wheezing, trying to talk. It sounded like hysterical gibberish, but I could make out “fell” and “knee” and… “horse”? I heard my mother telling her to calm down. Good, if she shut up, Mom might hear me scream.
I tried. What flew past my swollen lips, however, was not a scream. It was more like a… a… bray. I must have laryngitis or something. I got that last fall, right after cheering at the state cheer championships. It was awful – I couldn’t talk for, like, three days or something. My fingers got really sore from having to text all my friends. Seriously suckish.
Anyway, this scary noise that came out of me was accompanied by a shower of thick white foam. It flew out and made wet soapy spots on my pink wall. It totally scared me. I must be really sick. I clamped my mouth shut and spazzed out, flailing my arms and legs, pushing against the wall, trying to get up. There was a flurry of loud clattering sounds. I rolled my eyes downward to find my hands.
My mother charged into my room. She stopped cold in the doorway, like someone had hit her in the face with a frying pan or something. Her eyes bugged right out of her head. She screamed.
Great, everyone in the house could scream but me. And I needed serious help. What if I had rabies or something? That makes you foam at the mouth, right? I wondered if it was true that you had to get a hundred shots in your stomach. That would totally suck.
Mom watched my sister hobble up the stairs behind her on her probably-not-broken leg. She was such a drama queen.
“Mom,” my sister hitched, “do you see her?” I assumed she meant me. Duh, why wouldn’t my mother see me? I wasn’t invisible.
My mother peered at me out of the corner of her eye, then threw her hands up in front of her face and let out a little whimpering “uuhh.”
I looked down again.
My hands, yo, were not hands.
They were… hooves.
All-consuming panic. I tried to yell, but all that came from my throat was this really loud, freaky neighing sound.
Oh, my God, I was a horse!!!
My sister, her dorky face as white as my cheer shoes, leaned in the doorway and screamed. “She’s… she’s…” Her mouth opened and closed, like a slimy fish out of water. “She’s a unicorn!”
I passed out then.
* * *
My dad came right home from work. Well, actually, he didn’t even make it the whole way to his office before my mom called him and told him what was going on. He thought everyone had gone completely mental, so he pulled a U-ie on the freeway and floored it back home.
“Honey,” Dad said to me, hovering above my gigantic face, trying to remain calm. “I’m going to get a hammer from the garage and we’re going to get your…” he hesitated. I bet he was going to say “horn.” “…head unstuck, okay?”
On his way out of my room, he instructed my mother to get my hysterical sister, Erica, to the emergency room because her leg looked like it was on totally backwards. Plus, her screaming and crying was making him nervous. Mom gave me one last look, and a little panicky laugh-snort, then she shepherded Erica out of the house. Neither of them said good-bye or anything. I didn’t really blame them, but I’d be lying if I said my feelings weren’t hurt.
Dad came back with the hammer and smashed a big hole around my, uh, horn, and yanked as hard as he could with both hands. After much struggling and grunting, he finally got me unstuck.
I struggled to roll over and get my feet on the floor. It was not easy. I had to fold up my legs and push off the wall, which was slippery beneath my hooves. I made some wicked gouges in the drywall. Guess we’d be painting again. Fine by me, I was sick of all the sugary pink, anyway. It was cute when I was six, but, hello, I’m in high school now. Anyway, the bed rolled out at a crazy angle, and for a second my spindly legs — all four of them — stuck straight up in the air. Then, the momentum of my enormous body sent them crashing down to the floor and, presto, I was standing up. On four matchstick legs with super knobby knees. I felt dizzy.
I caught my reflection in the mirror above my white dresser with the heart-shaped crystal knobs. OMG, I was gorgeous! I was a pure white unicorn with a long snowy mane and liquid brown eyes. My horn was straight and glittery. I turned my head, admiring myself. Wow. Totally amazing.
My dad gawked at me with his lower jaw resting on the knot of his necktie. The hammer dropped from his hand, making a hushed “thump” as it hit the plush carpet.
I didn’t know what to do or think. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to run. I wanted to jump around and break things and scream: “Somebody get me out of this body, right now!!!” But, mostly, I just wanted to cry.
The phone rang. Nobody answered it, of course. The answering machine clicked on in Mom and Dad’s bedroom across the hall. The school wanted to know why my sister and I hadn’t shown up. I imagined my dad, Mr. Serious Exec, picking up the phone and saying: “I’m sorry, my daughters won’t be in school today. Erica fell down the stairs fleeing from Natalie, who has turned into a unicorn. I don’t think they’ll be in tomorrow, either.” That made me want to laugh. A little.
Oh, my God, I was a freaking unicorn.
* * *
When my mom and sister got back from the hospital, I was still standing in my room. Dad had found a big metal bucket that he was filling in the bathtub so I could have a drink. I was glad he thought of it because there was no way for me to tell him that I was seriously parched.
Erica had to stay downstairs because of her leg, and Mom used that as an excuse not to come up and see me herself. Frankly, I think she was totally freaked and just couldn’t deal. I mean, think about it. How would this go over with the old book club? Can you imagine telling people that your kid turned into a freaking unicorn? Oh, my God, right? I guess Mom wouldn’t be playing with her friends for a while. Great, she’d be a mega-witch in about two days from lack of social contact.
Dad brought me the bucket of water which I drank in about half a second, flat.
“Um,” he scratched his ear, “are you hungry or anything?” He was trying not to look at me.
I was pretty hungry. My stomach was making enough noise. What do unicorns eat? I thought. Cotton candy? Rainbows? Lucky Charms? Then, something so phenomenally embarrassing happened that the thought of food was blown completely out of my mind.
I took a giant dump right on my pink carpet. This huge brown apple fell right out from under my silky tail and embedded itself in the delicate pink shag. I put my head down and tried to cover my face, but I couldn’t get my hooves up that high. I knocked over my desk chair and stepped right on it. It broke, of course. I also knocked my jewelry box off the shelf with my horn. It crashed to the floor, spilling necklaces and rings everywhere. My mom’s old mood ring landed right in the pile of poop.
Dad went to get a shovel.
* * *
The whole day, my family — mainly, my dad — fed me carrots, sugar cubes, and other junk they thought horses ate. Well, and Doritos – the ranch flavored ones – because those were my favorite when I was a human. “When I was a human.” I can’t believe I have to actually say that.
So, anyway, I didn’t know what unicorns ate, but I was pretty sure it was none of the crap they were giving me. I really wanted a steak or something. And that’s so weird, because I’ve been a vegetarian since I was about nine, when I read about where meat products actually come from. Yeah, I wanted meat, I was sure of it. The problem was how to communicate that to my lame-brained family.
In the meantime, I followed my Dad out to the garage, where he’d spread out a bunch of old blankets and sleeping bags. I lay out there that first night, after Mom and Dad came out to give me a pat good-night (Mom was crying), and I thought about this.
This was seriously messed up. How did I turn into a freaking unicorn? Would I always be one or would I turn back into a fourteen year-old girl? Could I go to school? I mean, I could still think and learn. Would Chuck Abelson still like me? How would I go to the prom? I supposed I could pull my very own pumpkin coach.
The concrete made all my joints sore. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, with my own pillows. Although, my room probably didn’t smell that great after my morning accident. I still missed it, stinky or not. I wondered what would happen to me if I didn’t change back into myself. Our neighborhood wasn’t zoned for agriculture or whatever, and I couldn’t live in the garage forever. We’d have to move to a farm or something. My head hurt.
I lay down on my side and stretched out my legs, knocking over my dad’s golf clubs. Oops. I could not get comfortable. But, hey, at least I didn’t have wings, right? I wasn’t one of those Pegasus kind of unicorns.
* * *
The next day, my sister gimped out to the garage and sat down next to me as I lay there, sulking. Dad had gone in to work and Mom was at the store, getting more carrots or something.
“Natalie?” She stood between her crutches and stared at me. “Nat?”
If she was waiting for me to answer, she’d be waiting a really long time. I swung my nose over toward her and gave a huff. It was the best I could do.
She reached over and stroked my long snout with a trembling hand. Tears rolled down her cheeks. I suddenly felt bad for her. I wanted to hug her and tell her that I was okay, that I was the same old me, locked inside this stupid horsey body. She threw her arms around my neck and cried.
“I did this, this is all my fault,” she said, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her Penn State sweatshirt.
Okay, when she was about six, she had a total unicorn hang-up. She had a unicorn themed bedroom, a truckload of stuffed animal unicorns, a zillion unicorn books, a unicorn Halloween costume… you know, the usual obsessed kid stuff.
She also used to scream at me: “I wish you were a unicorn!” You know, when I was stealing her toys or hogging the sink when we brushed our teeth before bed, or whatever. Sister stuff. But, Erica was talking about one particular wish she made, one I had totally forgotten until she stood next to me, crying, in the garage.
We had this treehouse in our backyard when we were little. We bugged Dad endlessly to build the stupid thing. We drew plans and shoved them in his briefcase, blabbed about how we’d decorate it during car rides, begged, pleaded, cried. So, one day, he got really fed up and he drove us, swearing the whole way, with a vein sticking out of his red forehead, to the Home Depot. We bought a big stack of lumber, boxes of screws and nails, cans of stain, paint brushes, and even brass numbers (so Santa would know our address – dumb, huh?). He let us help him build it – well, not really – and it took about three months to finish it, including the week we had to take off, when he ripped open his thumb with the drill and had to get stitches. Boy, was he ticked about that. After it was done, Erica and I practically lived up there. It was our club house, you know. We hid up there and talked about our parents, dreams, boys, teachers… girl stuff. We had picnics, sleepovers, even put a TV up there. And, we learned about magic. Once, Erica made a wish.
We had found this book about black magic, or some kind of voodoo or something, in the public library. Erica read it to me by flashlight in our bedroom at night, as we giggled under the covers and crammed forbidden Hershey bars into our mouths. We did our best to copy a few of the rituals in the book, but none of them worked. Erica cast love spells on boys and we wished for a zillion dollars, stuff like that. All the potions called for weird stuff like the old standard eye of newt, and that just wasn’t happening. We were, after all, total suburbanites and Publix did not carry that kind of junk. None of our spells worked because we’d substitute baking soda for ground dragon bone or whatever.
There was one ritual, though, that guaranteed your fondest wish, and all you had to do was put a piece of raw chicken in a sock worn by the person who meant more to you than anyone else in the world. At six years old, I never thought it would work. I thought all that stuff was a total sham, and not one of our other spells or whatever worked. But, I played along. What harm could it do, right? So, I pulled one of my mom’s socks out of the dryer and Erica got a package of chicken from the fridge. And she made a wish.
Can you guess what it was?
So, sitting there in the garage, Erica told me that this was all because of some stupid wish she’d made on a slimy piece of chicken in a dirty sock back eight years ago. Yeah, right. I would have laughed right in her stupid face if I could. Like that’s why I was suddenly a unicorn. Jeez. There had to be some other explanation.
“Don’t you worry, Nat,” she said, wiping her nose on the palm of her hand and then petting me with it. Eeew. “I’m going to look for a way to reverse this spell. There’s got to be some way to bring you back.” I thought she must have taken too much pain medication or something. After all, she was now a seventeen year-old honor student, already accepted by Stanford, not an eight year-old booger-eating buttwipe.
* * *
Unicorns eat midgets.
Well, that would explain why I was craving meat.
“’…not only do unicorns have a physiological need to consume human flesh, and possibly bone, but, ideally, such morsels should be excised from a fresh body of petite and distorted proportions,’” Erica read from a sheaf of papers she’d printed out from some fantasy website she’d found. “Oh, my God, Nat, you eat midgets,” she said, looking at me with perfectly round bewildered eyes.
I wanted to laugh. I really did. Yeah, I was going to go out hunting for Oompa-Loompas, terrorizing little people. God. My sister may have been book-smart, but she was so incredibly, painfully, gullible. I don’t know how she found this idiotic website, but she obviously believed every word she read there. She told me that it was maintained by some doctor from Brazil or something. I know, like they have med schools in the third world, right? I wished she would go back in the house and leave me alone to sulk. I thought about stepping on her hot pink cast. That would teach her for being so stupid.
I had to admit, though, I was glad to have some company. Mom was avoiding me and Dad was burying himself in his work. To feel better about themselves — like they weren’t abandoning me or whatever — they tried to eat dinner with me in the garage on that second night, but the smell was too bad. Dad had mucked out my makeshift stall after work, but it was pretty rank. I remember one summer Erica bugged my mom to let her take riding lessons, and she had to quit after a week because the farm smell made my mom gag. We were never horse people. So, I appreciated her hanging out with me in my fetid pen. Even though this was all her fault. (Was it?)
“I haven’t been able to find anything about reversing that chicken-in-the-sock thing. I’m trying, Nat, I really am.” She stroked my mane. “Is it hard for you? It must be. I’m so sorry.” She threw her arms around my neck and leaned against me. I could feel her heart beating. She smelled like cookies. “I wish there was somebody I could call or something.”
I wished she could call Chuck and tell him that I still wanted to go to the movies with him next Saturday night. Mom said he called three times the first day I missed school. He only called once yesterday. Now, if Erica could just call him… But, what would she say? “Hey, Chuck, Nat’s still into you, but she’s a unicorn now…” Ha ha. Bummer. I had to get out of this body somehow. And soon, like before next Saturday. I could not miss our first date. I’d been waiting for him to ask me out all year. OMG, this sucked so bad.
“I’ll be back in a while. I’m going to lie down. The stuff the doctor gave me makes me really sleepy.” Erica pulled herself up from the folding chair with her metal crutches and swung into the house. I wondered if her meds made her retarded, too.
She did wish for me to turn into a unicorn. A lot.
* * *
A week went by and not much had changed. Dad mucked my stall and brought me sugar cubes, while Mom rationed out three pats per day (she wasn’t an animal lover) between vodka gimlets. Erica sat with me every day after school until bedtime and read made-up “scientific” unicorn nonsense from her laptop. She brought my iPod out and hooked it up to some little speakers she got for Christmas. My old favorite playlist made me cry. I remembered driving around town in my friend Ashley’s new car, hanging out at the mall, cheerleading… Chuck.
Two days until our date. It was still on – Erica texted him for me (as me) and told him that I had strep throat, but that I’d be better by Saturday. It sucked not to be able to talk to him. Or to anyone, for that matter. I felt like my heart had literally broken, in a jagged line, right down the middle, just like you’d see in a cartoon or something. I was so lonely. Not to mention hungry.
Erica snuck some veal out to me last week, on the fourth day. She’d stopped at the grocery store on her way home from school and smuggled it into the house in her backpack. It was so good, I can’t begin to describe it. It was like chocolate melting on my tongue, sweet and smooth. Oh, it was amazing. But, now I owe her fifty bucks because veal ain’t cheap. I want some more, but I can’t figure out how to place an order.
* * *
Tonight, she came out to the garage long after everyone was in bed. She was crying, as usual. I was standing in the corner, peeing on the bale of hay Dad brought me. Severely embarrassing.
“Natalie,” she said, “I can’t do it. I can’t figure out how to break the spell and change you back.” I walked over to her and put my nose in her face. Normally, I hated my sister, and I wondered if she really did do this to me, but she was sticking by me and I was touched. She gave me a pat. Then she walked over towards the door that led to the laundry room and she put her hand over the button that opens the garage door.
She looked at me with wet eyes and pushed the button. Springs creaked and the door rumbled up on its tracks. I thought it might wake Mom and Dad, but their room was on the other end of the house, across from mine, and I never heard Dad leaving for work in the morning, so they probably couldn’t hear it. I looked at her with my head tilted to the side, like a dog listening to a high-pitched whistle.
“Go, Nat,” she said, hobbling towards me. “I know you need to run, to stretch your legs.” She petted my nose. Then she whispered: “I know you’re hungry.”
I didn’t know what to make of that. Yeah, sure, I wanted to run, and I was practically starving, but, um, wouldn’t someone call the cops or something if they saw a unicorn running through suburbia, chasing down midgets? I mean, hello? I didn’t move.
She pushed my snout and said, “Go, now, before it gets light. Nobody’s going to see you. Everyone’s sleeping, no one’s lights are on or anything.”
What she said next totally floored me.
“And there’s a little homeless person who lives under the overpass by the BP. I don’t know if he’s a midget, but he’s petite.” She spanked my enormous butt.
I walked out into the misty pre-dawn air. It was delicious and cool. I’d forgotten how good fresh air smelled and tasted. I stretched out my neck and drew in a deep drink of air. The two-story brick colonials on our cul-de-sac were dark and much smaller than I remembered. My sister stood in the dark garage, whispering that she’d wait for me.
I crept down the concrete driveway, cringing at every clip and clop of my hooves. I stepped onto the grass and moved down the street. I looked back and saw my sister’s pink cast. She was a good sister. I loved her. Even if she was a nutcase.
I didn’t know about hunting midgets, but I sure was hungry. I could have really gone for some more of that veal. I wondered if I could fit through those double sliding glass doors at Kroger’s. My hooves glided noiselessly through the grass, leaving a silent black trail in the dewy grass, while my stomach grumbled like a broken washing machine.
I didn’t see anyone on my mile walk to town. I saw one car, but it slid across an intersection about four or five blocks ahead of me and sped away. I worried that the newspaper delivery person would be out, but it must have been too early for that. I walked along silently taking in everything through my new eyes.
My eyesight hadn’t changed. Things were a tiny bit blurry, just the same as when I was human and didn’t have my contacts in. Things smelled different, though. I could smell the cool wet grass, the warm sun-baked tar-patched asphalt, the heavy stink of grease when I passed everyone’s favorite fast-food chain, and… something besides gasoline and windshield wash as I approached the BP station.
As I passed by the dark gas station and came upon the pitch black overpass, my humungo nose picked up on an absolutely maddening scent. My stomach rumbled and fat strings of saliva seeped from the corners of my mouth. It was the smell of perfectly broiled meat, freshly baked bread, and state fair funnel cakes all rolled into one.
I peered into the darkness. I could barely make out three big mounds of rags arranged around a burnt-out barrel. That was where the smell was coming from – not the barrel, but the lumps. I inched closer and strained my ears, twitching them from side to side, listening for the slightest movement. A muffled snore. A muted fart. Gross. Three bums slept there, unaware of the mythical beast looming over them with an appetite the size of Alaska.
I crept up beside one of the humps and lowered my nose. It smelled like alcohol and dirty feet. Bad. I moved over to the next one, which was smaller than the others, crunching gravel beneath my hoof.
I stopped and held my breath, hoping they wouldn’t wake up and see me.
No one moved for about ten seconds.
I lowered my head and smelled the little one. That was the source of the delicious meaty funnel cake odor.
I didn’t know what to do. I stood there, inhaling as deeply as I could for almost a minute, getting dizzy from the heavenly fumes. Before I knew what I was doing, my nose burrowed into the pile of rags.
The human within first stirred and swatted at my nose, then came fully awake and stared in shock. He jumped up, never taking his eyes off me. He was an old man, filthy and unshaven. He couldn’t have been more than four-and-a-half feet tall. His head was too big for his short, pudgy body, his forehead bulbous, and his fingers were like fat little breakfast sausages.
And he smelled incredible.
I couldn’t stop my gigantic animal body from doing what my still-human mind so vehemently protested.
The midget started to say something, but was interrupted by the sharp tip of my horn. It penetrated his throat, just to the right of his Adam’s apple. Blood blurted out and he made a horrible gurgling noise. It was so unbelievably disgusting. I was glad it was dark. But, oh, that smell…
I knocked him to the gravel with my long snout and my lips found his round little belly. It practically popped between my flat-edged teeth, sending the most satisfying flavorful ambrosia down my greedy throat. It was heavenly.
The two others who had been sleeping with the midget rose from their piles, shouting and grabbing for each other in the dark. One of them grabbed a broken bottle and slashed at the air next to my hindquarters. I turned my bloody horn in his direction and he strained to see me. They both fled into the early morning gloom, yelling their idiotic heads off. Nubs.
* * *
I made it home before sunrise. My sister dozed in the folding chair, with the garage door still open. She opened her eyes when she heard me stepping up the driveway. I entered the garage and she shut the door, looking up and down the deserted street.
She switched on the overhead bulb and looked at me with horror. I was a bloody mess. She cried again, of course, as she cleaned me up with a towel she’d dunked in my drinking bucket. I wondered if I had tracked blood all the way home. I also worried about those other two bums running to the cops. But, I mean, come on, who would believe two winos saw a unicorn eating their friend? They probably had criminal records and would be too afraid to go to the cops anyway, right? That’s what I thought.
After my sister went back to bed – or, at least, left the garage (I doubted she’d be able to sleep) – I was consumed by overwhelming guilt and nausea. Of course, murder was a sin and everything, and I was Catholic.
I murdered someone.
I was mortified. I had never even shoplifted, not even when I really wanted that really cute Coach wallet and didn’t have the cash. I threw up on my sleeping bags.
I was a killer unicorn.
I didn’t know anything about unicorns except what my sister had found on the internet and what our old storybooks said. I didn’t know they ate people, for God’s sake. I closed my eyes and prayed for forgiveness. I also prayed to be my old self again.
* * *
Today, my sister put a piece of raw chicken in one of my socks and made a wish.