Desert Lullaby

She told me how sometimes, when you’re driving on the narrow highway of the night desert, a car will slow down in front of you, and then one will slow down behind you, and just when you realize you are slowing to a stop, both cars have blocked you and someone’s getting out with a gun, ready to rape and rob you.

Car-Phone-693x700And so, if a car came up slowly behind us, Mom would hold something (usually a toy) up to her ear and pretend it was a car-phone (yes, car-phone, because cellular phones were not yet the norm).

Her eyes would narrow, and focus in the rearview mirror, and she would exit the nearest off-ramp and either go to the gas station for a minute or pause at the stop sign long enough to let that car pass and then she’d get back on the highway.

I used to be afraid to drive at night. Then I began to think she was crazy. Then I was driving alone to Las Vegas and someone slowed down in front of me. And someone slowed down behind me. And there was no exit in sight.

The cars were going maybe 45 mph, and working their brakes. And I looked side to side to find and escape. I put down the pipe, seriously regretting my plans to toke it up the whole way there. Because, talk about paranoia.

40 mph. 35 mph.US_Highway_50_westbound,_West_of_Eureka,_NV

I had to act quick, but pot is not good for quick thinking. It’s not good for anything when you are about to be raped and robbed on the side of a desert highway where they will find you either a) never! b) naked and bloody on the side of the road or c) naked and dirty in a shallow grave. And none of these are great options.

Where’s the friggin’ exit when you need one? I look left and right. But it’s dark. And I grab my cell phone, of course, my cell phone. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

But they’re slowing down more. 31 mph. 28 mph.

Who do I call? My mom? The police? Who’s going to believe me? I mean, am I being paranoid? Do cars really do this to people? Well, not cars, but the bad people inside the cars? Are there really bad people like this? I thought my mom was just being overprotective.

I unlock my phone with one hand, push 911.

photo

But it becomes #11.

I delete three times.

9.1.1.

Urgh.

NOT #11.

Delete delete delete.

9-1-1.

I do this slowly.

Yes!

No!!!! The car in front of me is braking. I swerve and brake, skidding.

(Send, send, I never pushed send! Oh shit! I’m going to die!)

Bump bump bump bump bump, I go over the ridges on the edge of the highway, pop pop pop pop pop, gravel flies up under the car like gunshots pounding the tiny body of my Focus.

Cacti fly up into my windshield. You know, those ones that look like someone praying. Even pushing the brakes, I just keep going, like a runaway sled down the mountain. But there’s no snow. No sledding. Just scary scary bad men in cars that want to kill me. Or rob me. Or both.

But when the car stops, an airbag pounds me to the seat, and it’s like I’m punched in the face, though I don’t know for sure because I’ve never been in a real fight before. Someone’s trying to open my car door, but I don’t want them to get me. I don’t want to die like this. They’re banging on the window. I’m clenching my eyes closed, but it’s getting hot, and I hear the fire before I feel it or smell it.

“Get out! Get out!” someone is yelling through the window. But I don’t get out. I don’t want to be raped. I don’t want to be found on the side of the desert highway. I cough and close my eyes. The sound of men grabbing at my door handle fades to an echo of my mom’s story, like a bedtime lullaby.

taxi interior

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Unicorn Girl-Part Three: The orange

Stalls

And so it happened that the bell finally rang and school was let out for the day. The girl tried to get out quick and duck into the bathrooms until the halls were clear. She climbed on top of the toilet seat, took out a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, and read while she waited for the crowd to flow in and then out of the remaining stalls. It was then that she made her escape and, still wearing the paper bag over her horn so as not to get in any more trouble, she began her walk home.

After school I rolled my backpack home. It jumped every time the sidewalk split, and even though this was stupid, it made me giggle and I tried getting it to hop up even higher, as if it were a stunt bag. Maybe that would be my new life, a stunt girl in the circus, I thought. After all, this horn must be here for some purpose, right?

But as I was thinking how this thing might be a new career for me, something hit me in the back. I turned around, which was hard to do with the bag still over my head, and then I got hit again. It was an orange.

“Hey!” I shouted to the assailant, but I didn’t see anyone.

I took the bag off my head, and picked up the oranges, placing them into it. After all, there were at least three or four by now. The oranges were a little browned in spots, they didn’t look delicious, but they didn’t look rotten either. I kept looking around, but nobody was in sight. All the way home, somebody pelted me with oranges, and I yelled “Hey!” and then picked them up and put them in my bag. By the time I got home it was full.

A Florida navel orange.

Mom was home. I was so distracted by collecting oranges I hadn’t noticed her car there. I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t wearing my paper bag anymore and hoped she wouldn’t scold me for it, since she seemed to be in agreement with my principal that this “thing” needed to be covered up.

I walked in, and to my surprise the entire kitchen table was cleared off and Mom sat there with a brand new lap top computer.

“Where did all your papers go?” I asked her.

“I did it. He finally convinced me to do it. I bought a computer,” she said, her face beaming with pride and an unmistakable confused look glossing across her eyes.

I was happy for her. I really was. But I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that she had taken his advice—that stupid editor of hers. He could say the moon was made of Play-doh and she’d probably believe it. I had told her for a long time that we needed a computer. That there were countless reasons to getting one. And so, I was a little miffed that she could sit there and act like it was someone else’s brilliant suggestion.

Not to mention I was confused how she could spend all that money on herself right before she’s supposed to send me to summer camp. It was a horse ranch, which seemed even more fitting now that I was becoming part equestrian, even if in the mythical fairy-tale creature sense.

But I had known, in a way, all along, that I wouldn’t end up going. Because I had this idea in my head that if I went then maybe Graham and I would have more time together and he would finally fall in love with me. He had at least started noticing me, even if that was greatly in part to the unicorn horn on my head. And I wasn’t itchy anymore, which was liberating.

I used to have to sit in back because I didn’t want everyone watching me scratch at my forehead, and mess with my bangs to cover the red marks I created with my nails, and sometimes the flakes of skin from so much scratching would get caught in my eyebrows and I would have to shake them out too. I didn’t miss the itch. I didn’t miss all the strange creams my mom tried rubbing on me—cold cream, Crisco, butter, oatmeal paste, calamine, menthol Chapstick. But I wasn’t sure how to feel about the horn. I liked to think that it made me special, but wasn’t sure if it was really working for me in the friendship area, which was where I needed the most help.

My horn—iridescent and sparkling and luminescent—I wanted it to have some kind of useful special powers, but so far all I had done was sneeze glitter and re-appear some candy. Oh yea, and explode a few light bulbs and camera lenses. I had to figure out what this was here for, there had to be a reason, I figured. A calling, perhaps, to do something incredible. And if my calling didn’t include going to summer camp where Graham would inevitably fall in love with me, then this had better be good.

I sulked in my room. I didn’t even want to look at her new computer. I was feeling selfish and angry at her. And so I laid on my bed to try to fall asleep. I tossed from side to side, unable to settle down. My horn was bothering me. I tried to fluff my pillow, flip my pillow, use the corner of my blanket as a pillow, but nothing was comfortable. Not wanting to face mom with my rotten attitude, I climbed out the window to sit on the roof and get some air.

It was a beautiful blue day. I sat on the sandpaper shingles, and I swear the sun was making my horn sparkle even more. If ever there was a moment when I forgot it was there, something would get it to shining so bright there was no ignoring it. It was a brilliant white light and reflecting the sun like glittering sequins, dancing with each movement, each breath.

I was happy here. Alone, but happy, because there was no one to look at me funny. The wind tickled my nose and I sneezed and it filled the air with glitter, like in the principals’ office, then caught in the current up at tree-level. I wondered what that meant—the glitter.

I watched it to see where the glitter would land, what it would do if it touched the ground or a tree or a bird. If it would exhibit some magical side effects. But it was carried off into the wind, sparkling for as far as I could see. I got lost looking after it, longing for it, wishing to sneeze again to see it float away. To feel special, to watch what I was capable of creating—something beautiful and sparkly.

Grey and Orange bird 3

The universe must have known I was feeling good because it sent a bird to flutter about in the tree near me, and it came to me, and suddenly I was covered in yellow bird poop all over one shoulder. A half second later, the stuff landed on my face, on my horn of all places, then slowly dripped down right between my eyes. I tried to wipe at it with part of my shirt, but the awkward motion made lose balance and slide down the slope of the roof. My typical reaction to stress is to close my eyes, and so in my fear I squeezed my eyes closed, preparing myself for a hard landing on the half-dead lawn below. But when I reached the edge and the roof slipped out from under me, I felt the strangest sensation. I was floating.

I opened my eyes, and there it was, the roof, and I was a few feet away from it, hovering, my horn shining. But as it shined, saving me, the bird poop continued to drip and cloud my vision. I tried to wipe it off my horn but I felt myself sinking. I was falling. I landed in a thump and when I wiped at my eyes and my face, I was panicked to discover something alarming—my forehead was smooth.

I wiped my hands on my shirt, then touched it again, with both of them. Still, nothing but smooth, non-glowing skin. The horn was gone. The gift was gone. The magic was gone. I wondered if the itching would come back.

Graham passed by on the street and waved. I sat there. I realized I didn’t even like Graham. I only wanted his life. His mother. His father. His smile, and everything that was behind it. Maybe I did like him, but now that I wasn’t embarrassed by this horn, and even though I hadn’t fully cleaned the bird poop off me, I just didn’t care as much about what he thought of me. I didn’t even wave back.

That must have made him curious, so he came over to me.

“Hey, whatcha doin’?” he said, realizing I wasn’t getting up.

“I’m not sure,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.

He reached his hand out to me and I took it. He pulled me up.

“You look beautiful,” he said, and wiped something (sweat, dirt?) from my forehead.

His hand was warm, and his touch was slow and deliberate. He meant to do it. He wanted to be here, talking to me.

My cheeks felt hot, it suddenly struck me what it was he was wiping off my forehead and I couldn’t help but smile at that, an embarrassed, goofy sort of smile that you just can’t hold in even if you know it’s inappropriate. But still, it felt nice to feel him close to me, so close I could feel his breath on my face.

“Do you miss it?” he asked, tilting his head and looking at me. Really looking at me in a way I wasn’t used to being looked at.

I wasn’t sure what to say. He must have been talking about my horn, but I felt like he was talking about everything. My house. The pink room. Barbies. Ballet classes. Breakfast with Mom and Dad. My old life. Stories that have happy endings.

I felt a rush of something come over me and I hugged Graham. I squeezed him, squeezed him good, and was prepared for him to throw me back and wipe off my cooties with a shout of disgust. But he held me. My arms were locked around his neck, he slid his around my waist, and it was like we fit each other exact. I buried my head into his shoulder and felt myself melt into him—Graham, the boy I said I didn’t like. I hadn’t melted into anybody like that, ever. Well, not since my old life when people hugged me like it was the last time I was going to be huggable. I was little back then. Cute, even.

“Want to go for a walk?” he said.

“No thank you,” I said, feeling self-conscious of being too polite, but then deciding I didn’t care because I liked to be polite. It made me feel good.

“I’ll see you around, then,” he said, walking away but still looking at me over his bony shoulder.

I smiled. I liked Graham.

“Yea. You will,” I said, “be sure of it.”

I sat back down and ripped the grass up into little pieces, then threw them into the air, trying to make them float like the glitter. But that was gone. And even though it was only minutes ago, it felt like a different lifetime.

Inside, Mom was still sitting there at the table, slowly click-clacking away on the keyboard, not looking up. I took an orange from the bag on the counter and sat opposite her, slowing peeling away the spotted skin. I pulled it apart, separating each slice from it’s perfect place, and then crunching it’s tiny little orange vessels between my teeth.

segments

Knotty Boy

Knot components

Lay the paper out. Cut one end. Fold and wrap, and tuck it in neatly. Tape, then repeat. Now, for the hard part. The bow.

Breath. Count to ten. Breath. Smell your hands. Close your eyes. Walk back in room. Try again.

Take the two ends of the ribbon up into your hands, pull them together, tuck one end under the other and tighten. Do again and again and again. Uh-oh. Now it’s a triple knot. It’s stuck. Get the scissors from your pocket and cut the ribbon, cut it! Cut through it’s vein, disconnect it’s heart—the triple knot. I killed it. The knot is dead.

I go to my room and plop down on my bed. The room is spinning. I’m ready to just close my eyes and sleep even though it’s only seven. I’ll have to buy a sticky bow at the store tomorrow. I have to remember never to try that again. And here I thought it had been long enough to where maybe I’d grown out of this…thing.

I wake up the next day and slip my shoes on. In the kitchen I make coffee, I buy the old-fashioned cans so that they come with a nice lid. I don’t like the bags that need to be rolled over and their little foil arms bent and folded in. Too much like a knot.

I open the bread to make toast. I twist it closed, putting one of those plastic hooks back on to seal it. I live my life with resealable packages. Packages that don’t need tying. Don’t need knots.

What is it about a knot that’s so terrifying? Maybe it’s the permanency of it. Or the difficulty in learning the proper procedure. The technique of getting each end of your string even with it’s counterpart, then tying…how many times do you loop? Which end goes under? I can’t remember. It’s too much. I want it to be perfect, but it will never be perfect.

Knots are never perfect, they are messy. They are uneven. Hurried. And then permanent. You have to live with that sloppy imperfection until you cut it, kill it, and then you might as well have never had it to begin with.

So I don’t wear shoes with laces. Never have. I pull the strings out of my hooded sweatshirts, out of the waistbands of my drawstring pants, and even out of the tops of trash can liners, you know—the drawstring kind. I keep scissors with me just in case I run into a knot that needs to be undone. And you can bet I don’t wear ties. Are you kidding? It’s like wearing your own noose. My neck feels hot just thinking about it. Where do you even learn to tie one of those things?

On this particular morning, I finished my breakfast and left the house. I patted my hand against my leg as I walked, listening to the way my keys jingled against the scissors I always carried with me. I usually kept to myself during these walks, but today, I say a boy sitting on the curb. A boy who looked unmistakenly like me when I was little.

English: A serious faced boy

He sat there, elbows pressed into his knees and hands squishing his pudgy, boy-cheeks together on his face, and there they were—two shoes with their mangled laces dangling loosely from his sneakers.

“What are you doing, boy?” I asked, trying to sound like a man, even though I’m not close to being thirty, and I don’tthink you are really a man until you are in your thirties.

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” he said, then turned away.

I thought about that. It was probably smart. He was probably a smart kid. Only problem seemed that he couldn’t tie his laces. I knew I couldn’t help, but I wanted to.

“Well let me introduce myself, then I won’t be a stranger. My name’s Clark,” I said, then reached my hand out to shake his.

“No,” he said, turning around again, now facing 3/4 the way past me, and I wondered if this continued if he would just continue to spin around and eventually face me without realizing it. Maybe he wasn’t that smart after all. And that made me smile. Maybe he was like me. Stupid, innocent, misguided, little shit-head of a kid. After all, the way he said “No” was very snotty. And I know bratty kids. They get that way by being ignored. And so I did the polite thing, as so many of us are used to doing, and so happens to be the way of society—I turned my cheek and walked away. Not my business, right?

I went home. The next day I went for my morning walk and saw him again. This time in a tree, his shoes hanging from a branch by their wild laces, their confusing, evil laces. By no fault of the shoes, of course. I have no problems with shoes themselves.

“You need some help getting down from there?” I asked, nervous about what this new location might provide this bratty child to throw down at me, since I was already informed that I was a stranger and that strangers apparently deserve to be spat on by kids whose parents teach them things so they can feel less responsible for ignoring them, so they can blame the kid who gets kidnapped by saying “But I told him not to talk to strangers!”

“No,” he said, in his smug little smart-ass voice.

I walked away. Walked to the movie theater where I saw a movie I saw ten years ago, but this time  it was playing in 3-D. And 3-D glasses don’t have strings, or ties, or anything to trip me up. So I went. And on the walk home, the boy was still there. Up in the tree.

I didn’t even say anything this time. Just kept walking.

I passed under the tree and a pine cone hit me on the head.

“Hi Clark,” a small voice said from up high.

Hey, the little shit speaketh! I thought, then stared up at him.

“What was that for?” I asked, rubbing my head. I ought to have thrown it back at him. But with my luck someone would walk by just as I wind up my arm and then I’m arrested for pelting kids with pinecones, and they’ll probably tack on molestation charges while they’re at it. They’ll get a search warrant for my house and find all the slippers, the slide-ons, the velcros, the flip-flops. They’ll see them all and think I’m some kind of shoe pervert. That’s what the headline will read tomorrow.

Shoe pervert finally caught while assaulting child in tree.

“Nothin’,” he said.

And I walked away.

The next day, same thing. But this time I brought something for him. It took some digging around. But I found them. And so, this time, when I see him and he’s laying under the car of his parents’ house—like a cat, lurching, peeking, peering, creeping—I leave a red gift back by the bumper. Inside, my first pair of velcro trainers.

Polski: But

I walked away, but I could hear the familiar scratching sound of him ripping those straps open and then a hurried patting of footsteps running down the other end of the street, to where I can only imagine. But I should hope he goes to school since it is a weekday.

I never saw him again. The pine cones collected up in the gutter outside his house. I saw the 3-D movie three more times. Then it was over.

Unicorn Girl-Part Two: The bump

The bump had certainly grown. And the glowing was most definitely coming from the center of her forehead, that girl in the mirror. But she got dressed in her best outfit, one sure to shine in pictures and get her noticed by Graham. She buttoned the pearly white buttons of her green shirt, the pretty one with white dots and a small breast pocket. The pocket was quizzically small, since she had no items that would fit in it, but it was a nice decorative touch, if not too odd to be noticed by her peers.

Mother was asleep when the girl tiptoed out of the house, wanting to avoid a fight over how the green shirt didn’t match her brown eyes. And the powder puff Mother would surely dab all over her face. And possibly even a forced set of Mother’s old pearl earrings and necklace which would match so well. Her mother’s work day wouldn’t start until after nine, though she might take a day off since she worked late the night before. Yes, she had not come home until past eleven, and it never went unnoticed by her daughter.

The girl put the steak back in the freezer, it was still hard in the center. Despite cartoon belief, it had apparently not been effective in reducing her bump. She popped a bagel in the toaster, but when she leaned forward to grab a plate, she was pushed back by an invisible force. 

“What the heck?” I said, stumbling back.

It was then that I realized what happened. By reflex, not by my intention, I touched it. And it had certainly grown. The bump was extending out from my head like Pinocchio’s nose.

“Maybe I should try a hat?” I said, to myself apparently since Mom was still sleeping.

I reached into the coat closet, nothing. We never really wore hats. And my bandana would not fit over something like this.

It’s just my imagination, I said over and over again in my head. I realized for the second day in a row, my forehead was not itchy. In fact, it had gone from being numb to feeling an oddly buzzing sensation of not feeling anything. It felt kind of good. Like every sensation to itch had disappeared. And at the same time it felt like nothing. And well, it seemed to be growing and glowing.

I walked to school slowly. I wanted to observe people’s reactions to me. I needed to know if this thing was real. This bump that had turned into a glowing, sparkling, twisted horn overnight. And would it keep growing?

Nobody was around. The street was quiet. I went all the way to school unnoticed.

I walked into the classroom, sure that my imagination had gotten the best of me, and that I had a bad dream, bumped my head again, and that’s what was making it all seem fuzzy, hazy, or something. Maybe this was a dream, and that’s why nobody was around.

class roomBut in class, the seats were full.

I took my place in the back row and class began as usual. We stood up and saluted the flag in the corner, said the Pledge of Allegiance, and sat through announcements about volunteering for the Fall Ball and class elections, and this and that, and I tuned out, closed my eyes to shield myself from the make-believe light shining down from underneath my bangs.

Nobody looked at me.

When the teacher walked around the class to pass back our tests, she came to my desk and set the paper down in front of me. She looked at me, perhaps to smile and congratulate me on my B-, but instead stopped and stared.

“How could you?” she said to me in horror or disgust, or both. “And on picture day, of all days. Does your mother know?” she asked, then put her head down, shaking it as she walked away.

I found it annoying when people asked you a question, or series of them, then walked away without waiting for an answer. And the way she said that made me feel like I had done something wrong. Like I had done this to myself in some kind of adolescent protest to uniformity.

My Mom’s words echoed in my head, “No makeup until high school,” she had said over and over. But I wished I had at least tried to put something on this to cover it up. Or maybe if I had purple eyeshadow on then nobody would even notice my forehead. Maybe a purple highlighter would work.

It was nearly 10:30 (recess time) and our class was next for pictures, so the teacher moved our break to later. We lined up in the hallway by class, then by alphabetical order. I was at the end, like always, but at least it placed me out of sight of everyone else who was eagerly looking on ahead to see who was getting their picture taken. And it placed me six classmates away from Graham, which means, if I did my math correctly, that will place him directly above me in our class picture.

Our class was half-way done, when who of all people showed up in the hallway—none other than my very own mom. Oh dear God, what have I done to deserve this? I cringed, tried to lower my head into my body and disappear like a turtle. But if I was lucky enough to hide my horn from the class this far, my mom was sure to expose it. And in sixth grade, this could be terminal.

“Honey!” she shouted down the hall, “you forgot your brush and spray that I left out for you,” she said waving it around and looking for me.

I thought I had done a good job of disappearing myself somehow, no questions asked, just gratitude. But when I opened my eyes she was standing in front of me, reaching the brush out to my head. She started hacking away at a tangle in my bangs.

“Just look at you,” she said, using her fingers to untie a big knot right near my horn. I hoped she didn’t touch it. Even though it was numb, I had a fear that it would hurt if she scraped it with that brush.

I put my hands up to shield myself from her wrath.

“Please stop, Mom. Do you see any other parents here? No. Please leave,” I said, getting whiny so as not to sound mean-hearted. “Please,” I restated, “just go. I will see you at home later.”

She stopped in her tracks, arms frozen mid-air in front of my bump which seemed to glow brighter and hotter in my embarrassment, which I hoped, prayed even, that she wouldn’t notice.

“Fine,” she said, snippy.

“Thanks for bringing these, though” I said, trying for damage control and taking the things from her with a forced smile.

It was almost my turn. At least my mom didn’t blow the cover. I just needed to keep my bangs in place. Sure. That would do it. I held still, as not to let them expose my secret. I had to get rid of these things so I dropped the brush and bottle in the trash can nearby. They landed with a clunk, and several kids turned around in line to see what the noise was. I looked away quickly, as if I too were looking for what made that loud noise.

The line inched along until, for better or worse, it was my turn. I walked up to the tape line, pointed my toes toward the photographer, tried not to look at all the umbrellas, but directly into the camera. Into the lens.

It was working, I thought. I smiled, and it felt radiant. I felt confident. I was shining, I thought. But then my eyes focused in on the reflection in the glass. Me. Sitting slumped over even though my spine felt straight, and of course, I saw the bump. Which was now the horn. Which was glowing through the part in my bangs that formed as it grew, trying to poke out from behind my carefully curled and sprayed bangs. I shook my head in disbelief and disappointment.

“Stay still,” the photographer said, scolding.

But it was too late. My bangs had opened like a curtain parting and the brightness of my horn was released in it’s full embarrassing glory. The camera lens cracked and shattered, so I closed my eyes in an effort to make it all stop. Light bulbs popped and children began screaming. It was all my fault.

I ran to the bathroom, my horn blazing a bright path before me and seeming to whisk me off me feet, quickly to my destination. I went to the last stall, my favorite, and leaned my back against the door, blocking out the world.

I touched my forehead, afraid of how much bigger it was going to feel, and like a frozen steak, my fingertips soothed the burning sensation that I felt all over my face. The light from the horn went out, a relief to my eyes which had become squinted in their efforts to filter out the brightness. If I had been a light bulb burning hot it was like someone has finally turned off the switch to give me a rest.

I wanted my itch back. I wanted to only be in here for that, running the paper towel under the cool water and pressing it to my head. This, this thing, was too much.

When the bell rang and I was sure the bathroom was clear, I stepped out of my stall. There it was—the mirror. I looked up, unsure of what I would see this time, but it was clear. It was a tall, slender, twisted, sparkling white horn smack dab in the middle of my forehead.

Had it grown? Or was it me fooling myself to think that I had covered it up with my hair only this morning? And why hadn’t my mom said anything when she came? Didn’t she notice? She notices everything, right? Was she too offended by my attitude? Or distracted by her late night “meeting”?

I knew it would be inevitable to have to return to the classroom. I fumbled by, having waited so long so that now I was sure to be an interruption. Trying to be stealth, I kept close to the cabinets, but my horn knocked a paper off the wall as I walked past.

The class turned in unison and looked.

“Please take your seat, Ms. Tardy,” the teacher said, sounding like a cross between a snake and a bee whenever she pronounced Mssssss.

I sat down.

“You must now take your turn wearing the tardy sombrero,” she announced. “Let this be a lesson to all of you,” she said while holding the straw hat high above the class.

She went to put the hat on me but it fell right off.

“Now this is most disrespectful,” she scoffed at me.

She tried once again to put it on my head.

It fell.

“You take that thing off this instant,” she said to me, pointing at my horn.

I looked at her, puzzled. The class was silent.

“I don’t know how,” I said bluntly. It was the truth.

“Don’t talk back to me. You take that thing off,” she said, and gave it a good yank, as if she could just pull it right off that easy. Like I hadn’t tried that.

“Ouch,” I screamed, even thought it was a lie. It didn’t hurt, but it was quite rude and that needed to be addressed in some regard.

“That’s it, you march yourself down to the Principal’s office immediately,” she said.

So I walked away, down the center aisle, and across the front of the classroom with my head hung low.

“Bye Unicorn girl,” a voice said. It was a beautiful voice, the voice of an angel it seemed. I looked up and Graham was waving at me with one finger stuck out by his forehead.

I smiled. He was right. I was like a unicorn.

But when I got to the principal’s office he was steaming. He knew it was me that had broken the photographer’s equipment and then run off, so he was not happy. Well, maybe happy that he had me in his office to reprimand. He was the kind of principal who liked to reprimand. He’s the only principal I ever had to go see in their office.

“Does your mother know what you’ve done?” he asked me from across the mile-long desk.

All I could think about was how badly I wanted one of the strawberry candies from his crystal dish.

“Can’t I plead the fifth amendment?” I said, knowing it would sound smart alec, but not caring. This was the new confident me. The one with the horn. No itchy forehead. The one who smiles great in pictures and who now might have a boyfriend named Graham (as these things can happen very fast in sixth grade).

He stood up and reached across the desk, right for it, right for my horn. And he pulled it. When that didn’t do anything to satisfy him, he yanked it hard, pulling my head with it.

“Ouch!” I said, and slapped his wrist out of instinct. “That was rude. What is the matter with you?” I said. I got up and stood near the door, ready to run.

“How did they get that on there so strong? Who did this? Why would you do this? I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, holding his jaw with his hand and staring awkwardly at my horn.

“I don’t have to answer your questions without my mother present,” I said in my final attempt to avoid the topic, since I myself didn’t know the answers.

“Well she is on her way,” he said, then stared into his computer, fiddled his keys around, wiggled the mouse, and pretended to work while we waited. “So sit down and don’t move until she gets here. I have…work to do,” he announced in a strange, radio-show-host sort of way.

And we waited. My mom had a tendency to run a little late. I helped myself to one of the strawberry candies. Didn’t even ask, just unwrapped one right in front of him (staring into his computer) and crunched it hard, filling my mouth with gooey liquid. And then another. Before I knew it I had eaten the whole bowl and there was a pile of crinkly gold wrappers laying on the desk as evidence.

I closed my eyes and wished I hadn’t eaten so many of them, or that the pile of wrapper evidence would just disappear. I had in fact really enjoyed eating them and didn’t wish to give that back. I wondered if wishes worked that way, if you could take them back, or re-do them if you don’t say the right thing the first time. Because I have a way of not saying things right at first.

I opened my eyes and the pile of wrappers was gone. The candy dish was full. The flavor of strawberry lingered in my mouth.

“Hm,” I uttered, impressed with myself—either my magic or my insanity.

“What is it?” Principal Berryman said, still gazing at his “work”.

“I…uh, uh, uh,” I tried to hold it in, but it was coming out, “a-choo!” I sneezed, and when I looked to see the snot flying, instead it was a cloud of glitter that came out, splattering Mr. B’s desk with the sparkliest, most translucent glitter I’d ever seen. Like ground up diamonds. The most beautiful snow.

“Kazuntite!” he said, in a reprimanding tone. Then sent a box of kleenex sliding across his desk toward me, still without looking up, for which I was thankful for. I wasn’t sure how I would explain this one. I was still trying to come up with some excuse for the horn which I had nothing to do with.

I averted my eyes, hoping he wouldn’t notice the sparkly mess if I pretended not to. I let a few moments pass, then swiped a tissue from the box and tried to casually wipe the glitter off. I tried to catch it in my hand off the side of the desk, but as it fell it disappeared into nothing. I had to figure out what happened to me the night before last to understand what was happening now. I had to get this thing under control, whatever it was.

The more I wondered about this condition, the more it began to hit me—I just did magic. Right? Or was that my imagination? Am I crazy? I couldn’t be sure, but the still-sweet flavor of artificial strawberries told me to believe. And I wondered what else I could do that I hadn’t realized before. That I had convinced myself wasn’t real either.

“Knock, knock,” my mom’s voice sang in the principal’s doorway. I found it irritating when people actually said “knock” instead of physically knocking. If you have the arms, use them, I thought.

And when I turned around to watch her enter the room, I noticed she was waving her arms around like some kind of hula-dancer-octopus.

“What are you doing?” I asked her, my eyes measuring up her movements. I often asked her questions like this since she was always embarrassing me one way or another. And I guess I should have somehow politely just said “Stop doing whatever it is you are doing!”

She ignored me. Mr. B asked her to have a seat.

I had so many thoughts racing through my head. First of all—it’s not fair that I’m getting in trouble for something that’s not my fault. Or is it? I tried again to think back to that night it all started, but it’s as if the memory just doesn’t exist.

I stopped listening to my mom and the principal talk about what “issues” drove me to act out in such a manner. “Mutilation” and “indignation” he even called it. But as it had become part of me by now, I begun to feel offended by such rudeness. And, after all, Graham called me beautiful. Well, not in those words exactly, but he may as well have by the smile he gave me.

I walked out of the office ten minutes later with a paper bag over my head. It was forced on me. Oh it wasn’t that bad, the eyes and mouth and nose were cut out. But my horn seemed to ache under the rough texture of the bag. It wasn’t glowing anymore either.

My mom kissed the top of my bag and darted off. A meeting with her Fairy God Publisher, I assume.

I thought for a moment that, Hey this is what I wanted, for it to go away. But it wasn’t gone, and this felt even more embarrassing, more shameful, and none of this was my fault but no one would believe me, or maybe they just didn’t believe in anything. I hadn’t imagined it would happen like this—making the horn disappear by simply placing a paper grocery bag over it.

And I still couldn’t be sure that the bag had any effect at all on the horn, though it was hurting my self-esteem like a stupid, floppy Easter hat your mom still makes you wear even though you’re eleven! Still, I marched on down the hall back to class, where Mr. B made sure I kept the bag in place as I entered back into my dreaded classroom.

Red Rain BootsThe class was instructed not to look at me, but those kind of instructions always work in opposite. Everyone looked at me, only they weren’t looking at me—all they could see was recycled paper with knee socks and rain boots. Hey, it looked like it was going to rain today. And it was a very large bag.

Unicorn Girl-Part One: The itch

Once upon a time there was a girl who had an itchy forehead. The doctors said it was eczema. Her mother said her hair was still filling in. The neighbor said rub olive oil on it three times a day and it would heal on its own.The itchiness never went away. Sometimes her head was so scratched up she even had to wear bandanas around her head, slung low almost to her eyebrows. Her favorite bandana was a lime green one, although she rather disliked having to wear one at all.

It came about the summer of sixth grade when she first noticed something had changed.

“Dear, did you bump your head on the nightstand again?” Mom asked when I came to breakfast that morning.

I rubbed it.

“Ouch,” I said, touching the spot, “I don’t remember.”

“It looks awful swollen,” she said. “Here, let me ice it for you.” Mom opened the freezer and extracted one bag of frozen peas, which she promptly tried to press to my forehead, but ended up smashing in my face.

“Here, I’m big enough to do that myself,” I said, and held the bag in the correct position above my eyes, not in front of them.

“Is that too cold?” she said while walking away to the coffee maker.

I thought about that for a moment. It wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t feel cold at all. My first instinct was that the freezer must have been broken. I took the bag off my forehead and felt it in my hands. The peas were hard, like little pebbles, inside the bag.

“Get that thing back on your forehead,” she said walking back by me while I stood there examining it. She picked it up and replaced it on my forehead. Again, nothing.

I went to school that day, and I could tell it had gotten bigger. I guess I must have knocked it in my sleep, I told myself, and was prepared to tell anyone who might ask at school. I hadn’t really considered what they might think of a sixth grader who knocks herself out on their own bedroom furniture in their sleep. Why not just remove the furniture, or just sleep on the floor? they’d ask. It’s not that simple, and it doesn’t happen all the time, I would say back. If they asked.

I let my hair fall over to the side, leaving it untucked to cover the spot. Usually my hair would start to tickle my forehead, make it more itchy, and I’d run to the bathroom to check on it. Sometimes if I put a light compress of a paper towel soaked in cold water it would help relieve it. But the peas must have worked, because it wasn’t itchy at all. In fact, it was kind of numb.

I did really well in school that day, despite the bump and any sort of concussion I might have suffered in my sleep. I knew the answers to all the questions and raised my hand in confidence. I went home and felt winning, a new feeling, it was like something had finally clicked. And I even think I saw Graham turn around and look at me when I answered the question about why Scout was so interested in Boo Radley.

I walked home, which wasn’t unusual because I always walked home. But what was different this time was that when I got there my mom was home too—in the kitchen, scrounging around. Usually the hours between 10-6 were hers, hers alone. Or maybe hers and her book editor.

“What are you doing home Mom?” I asked when I got in the door.

She was rummaging through the stuff on the kitchen table. Piles of papers, most of which I assumed to be bills, or rejection letters.

“I have ten unfinished manuscripts here, somewhere, and I need to find them,” she said.

“Manuscripts?” I said, it had a strange ring to it. An unfamiliar one.

“Yes, manuscripts. Stories. The stuff I’ve been working on for the past ten years of my life. Help me find them,” she said, frantic and still rummaging.

I dove in, still not sure what to be looking for. If my mom were like a normal person’s mom, then she probably would have saved them on her computer. But no. She insisted on typing everything up on a vintage typewriter that she bought at a yard sale from someone who claimed that the previous owner was none other than a great novelist whose name they had on the tip of their tongue and couldn’t produce.

“What’s the big rush, anyways, don’t you have a better revised one than what’s here? This stuff’s been buried for months, maybe even years,” I said, picking up a few unopened Christmas cards.

“You will never believe who I met at the train station today,” she said.

“Why were you at the train station?” I said.

She stopped and looked at me with her eyebrows pushed up in the center, annoyed.

“Because that’s where I’ve been working,” she said slowly, as if it pained her to elaborate on her whimsical stories which were half made-up anyways.

I couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing that qualified as “work” at a train station in this era, in this town, unless we were in the Old West then it would be quite clear. I was smart, I knew what went on upstairs in the old saloons. But I did’t want to ask and get her upset again.

“Who’d you meet?” I said, ready for the punch line.

“Only the top publisher of children’s stories, who is a big fan of fairies and who is totally breaking into the new digital media market as well,” she said, her eyes beaming.

I wondered many things, most of which I knew would upset her if I asked aloud. Number one: who are you talking about? You still haven’t told me a name or a company, which leads me to think this guy (I’m assuming it’s a guy) isn’t really who you say he is. Number two: fairies? What does that even mean? And number three: since when did you start writing children’s stories?

“Well, they are for all ages. There are children in them. That’s what the whole editing process is for, dear,” she answered. Apparently I had said the last question aloud. And apparently editors are magicians. Cool, maybe I should be one.

“I just read a good one for class, it was about—”

“Oh god, really? Really, you’re going to do this to me right now, when I’m in the middle of trying to find any one of those damn manuscripts to meet that guy in three hours,” she said.

“Geesh, sorry,” I said. I went to my room.

Megan Heart Forehead

I had somewhat forgotten about my bump until I saw myself in the mirror. My bangs were still draped over my forehead but I could clearly see that the bump was bigger now. I pulled my hair back, careful not to touch my forehead with too much pressure. It wasn’t just bigger, it was almost glowing. No, it was in fact quite positively glowing.

I dropped my hair back down to cover it, and it practically disappeared. Except once I knew it was there, I could no longer hide it from myself. I thought that by the end of the day it would get better, especially if I could avoid thinking about it. In fact, I had forgotten about it altogether until now, when I was back at home.

“Mom,” I called out from my room. “Mom, come here” I said.

I heard the front door slam shut. Her car started and took off. I was alone. With my bump. That glowed.

I sat on my bed and cried. I had prayed for my forehead to stop itching, but now it had this. Had I asked for this somehow?

The next day was school picture day. I hoped that if I slept with a bag of peas on my head it would go away by morning. The peas thawed before I could fall asleep, so I exchanged them for a steak. I had seen this in cartoons so I felt this was the more authentic and effective food item to place on an injury.

I still couldn’t quite figure out what had happened in the first place. I looked at my nightstand. The foam pads were still in place on the corners. I put my head on my pillow, laying to the side as not to put pressure on my bump. I tried to pray for it to heal by morning, but fell asleep before I could finish my prayer. I slept and dreamed that my whole face turned into a steak, with peas for eyes. And a dog chased me down the street, trying to bite my face. So I threw my pea-eyes at him, but then I couldn’t see where I was going so I tripped and fell. And the dog ran up to my crumpled body, took a bite of my face, and sat there gnarling and chewing on me.

I woke up with a throbbing pain. I touched my face to feel if it was steak. It felt like skin. I opened my eyes, they were not missing. But my room filled with a blinding brightness which gave me the worst possible headache ever. I’ve seen mom feel like this—eyes squeezed to an almost shut—and on those days she refused to get out of her bed, open the blinds, or get dressed. But it was picture day today, and I had to see Graham again while I was on a roll. Maybe he would talk to me today.

I rolled out of bed, slinking my body to the floor the way tired cartoon people do. I know I’m getting too old to believe that anything in my imagination could be real, but it felt like a strange possibility that the brightness of the room, and my headache, were coming from…the bump.

Oh God, it’s worse, I thought, but didn’t dare touch it. What if it burned me? I fumbled around with my eyes tightly closed, face grimacing from the pain. I grabbed my hand mirror from the dresser and held it towards my face, then opened my eyes. The bump was under my hair, so I brushed it aside with my fingers.

The glare from my forehead caught in the mirror and blinded me. I threw the mirror back in reaction. The bump was really shining bright.

I stood up, squinting my eyes so I could just see out the cracks. It was like looking at the sun. But it wasn’t hot.

There it was, the evidence in the mirror on the wall. There I was, with a splintering shiny star torching from my forehead. I worried, would my hair catch fire? But again, it wasn’t hot. Just bright, like a sparkler on July Fourth.

I pushed my hair over the place, and it seemed to work somewhat, giving a loose shade, like those dangley sort of blinds that hang in front of sliding glass doors.

(To be continued…)

People-watching at McDonald’s

I found him sitting there in his living room. Alone. I hoped my breath wasn’t fogging up the window, giving some obvious sign that something wasn’t right. But I stayed there, bound to my post, having vowed to myself not to budge until I got the evidence I needed to put him away for good.

McDonald's French fries Potato (01)

It all started last week at McDonald’s. He slinked into the playroom, holding the door with his spindly arm as five kids rushed past him, tore off their shoes, and ran up the structure made to look like a tree. I sat, eating my french fries with extra salt, sipping my chocolate shake, and people-watched. He made no eye contact, no facial expression, just a drab, droll, sagging face that told me nothing other than he was old and tired.

Maybe he was their grandpa, I thought to myself. But he was so unattached. And two of the kids were black, and he was nothing but white all over, skin and hair and all. They varied in age but the oldest couldn’t have been more than five. And the younger one, maybe eighteen months old, sitting on his lap, staring out at nothing—at the play place, at the window, at a memory too far gone to see anymore.

There was something about him that wasn’t right. And so I stayed until they were done. It was a long three hours. I ordered more fries to keep occupied during this initial stake-out. Something I wish I had tonight because I was starving right now but the nerves in my stomach made it impossible to eat all day.

I followed him that day and found where he lived. I couldn’t do anything. I knew that. But I just wanted to know where he lived. And when I went home, I searched the Megan’s Law website in his neighborhood for him. I wanted his identity, to know his name, to know if my suspicions were real or if I was just crazy—a product of an overprotective and always-jump-to-worst-case-conclusions mother.

Still, I was lucky to have her, and I worried these kids had no mother. No real parent to look after them. This man surely had to be a foster parent scammer, or maybe a kidnapper. But he was certainly not some gentle old grandpa tending to his grandchildren with a special outing to McDonald’s. No. That wouldn’t have been so suspicious. And surely this peculiar feeling in my stomach had to amount to something.

The moon was a sliver tonight, making my hiding in the bushes fairly easy as the street lamp was also a ways down the sidewalk. I don’t know what I was expecting to see at this hour, past dark, but it was the only time I could get over here without looking suspicious, or obvious. And so, I hoped it would be good enough to capture some incriminating evidence. Some detail. Some picture. Something to confirm my suspicions.

The trash cans were out at the curb already. But that was Plan B. Nobody likes digging through garbage, but I was willing and prepared to do it. I had a pair of dish gloves in my back pocket just in case.

He got up from the couch. By now I knew his name, Dorian, but that was all I could gather from the kids calling him by that name, which sounded slurred and slopped by their toddler lips. He picked up a magazine off the coffee table. I squinted to read the title but couldn’t. I’d been needing glasses for a while now but keep postponing going to the eye doctor because I’m in between jobs and have no insurance. And usually I don’t have to read things so far away.

I stayed there while he read for an hour at least. I was less than pleased with the uneventful stake-out. It seemed as though I’d be digging through the trash bin after all. If Dorian ever went to sleep, that is. And maybe, I thought, if he went to sleep, before I dug in the trash I could see what room he goes to. I couldn’t get through his locked side-gate, but I could see through the wrought iron enough to watch the other lights in the house turn off or on, and had seen the back bedroom turn dark shortly after I arrived at my spot by the window.

I had this feeling, this unexplainable feeling that seemed to guide me to these conclusions, to tell me what I was looking at. Something so specific formed in my mind from the moment I saw that man. That Dorian, if that was his real name. Something just wasn’t right, and I hadn’t been able to sleep since stumbling upon him that fateful day.

My eyes closed remembering the way he stared that day, the way he refused eye contact. I sat down, closed my eyes some more, leaned up against the shingles of the house. Closed my eyes imagining all the things I couldn’t save those children from.

I woke up in a sudden panic, a dream of falling. The worst thing a spy can do is to nod off at their post. It seemed darker than before, but maybe it was just the quietness and stillness of the street. A glance at my watch showed past 3. The house was dark. Dorian was not in his chair.

I got up, drowsy and staggering like a drunk, rubbing my eyes, trying to remember what I was doing there. What my plan was. I stumbled to the curb, pulled the gloves from my back pocket and lifted the lid of the trash bin. All the bags were black and impossible to see in the lack of light. Still, I ripped the first one open, and sifted around for anything that would stand out.

I pulled out cereal boxes, plastic bags full of diapers, milk jugs. Nothing interesting. I ripped the next one open, and the next, and soon forgot all about being on the side of the street in the early morning. I rummaged through bag after bag, the sun beginning to peek out over the brick grocery store on the other side of the block, and I heard the beeping of the garbage truck as it came down the next street.

I grabbed at things, anything, trying to make the story in my head real by finding proof. There had to be something concrete, something more than just a feeling. And those kids, I needed to save them. Something told me to save them.

I pulled out toilet paper rolls, hair balls, Suave shampoo bottles. A rubber duck. A toy shovel. A doll with it’s head ripped halfway off and a missing arm. The beeping of the truck got louder. If it came around the corner and saw me standing here, digging around, I could be busted.

But still, there had to be more. This wasn’t enough. I kept digging, ripping the bags to shreds, black plastic tearing this way and that, exposing Dorian’s private garbage. His private life of refuse.

Close-up of a teddy bear

Another doll head. A doll leg. A teddy bear head. This had to be the bag with something, something interesting, something that would be decoded and figured out before it could make sense, or tell me what the crime is. How to turn him in. How to put him away for good. How to save the children.

The beeping got closer.

I pulled the whole bin over on its side, dumping its contents into the street. Not caring anymore what kind of ruckus I made because I was running out of time. I kicked the bags out of my way to get to the stuff underneath where I had pulled the doll parts out of. I saw it there, the black trash bag pregnant with mutilated stuffed animals and doll heads that could no longer blink, spilling it’s contents out through the gash I left in it’s side. I grabbed the whole bag, held it together at the seam, and ran down the street, away from the beeping. Away from Dorian.