THE STYLIZED UNICORN ESCAPES ITS POSTER IN A SEATTLE TEENAGER’S BEDROOM

Thomas K. Carpenter is the author of more than twenty science fiction and fantasy novels. This is his third appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

***

The style is nouveau. It was your birthday gift last year. Your mother thought you would like the poster because you’ve watched The Last Unicorn like a bazillion times.

Now the lavender oval is empty. The unicorn stands at the end of your bed, neighing softly.

The unicorn is nothing like the poster, or the cartoon version from The Last Unicorn. It looks like a white horse with a horn coming out of its head, except different.

You know this can’t be happening. Horses don’t come jumping out of posters, and unicorns aren’t real. You know that this is called bipolar psychosis because you’ve been to therapy. You know it’s triggered by stress. Your mom’s funeral was two days ago, and you’ve been locked in your room since then.

The unicorn lowers its head. The tip of the horn hovers above you, writing invisible poetry in the air.

You wonder if it’s a male or female unicorn. From this angle you can’t see past its powerful leg. You think about opening up your browser to find out the gender of unicorns, but as your hand hovers over the mouse you realize how ridiculous that would be. A little laugh slips out.

“No,” you whisper softly.

“No,” you say harder.

The unicorn backs away, its tail swishing, nearly knocking a snow globe of Paris off your shelf.

“Not you,” you say to the unicorn. “It’s me, always me.”

The unicorn stills, then lifts its head. Noises originate in the kitchen. Probably your dad rummaging around in the refrigerator looking for leftovers, but there are no leftovers, because Mom isn’t cooking anymore.

“You’re a boy,” you exclaim, catching yourself because you don’t want your dad to hear and come investigate and find a unicorn in your room.

Or maybe you do, because then you’d know if he was real or not. Maybe then you wouldn’t wonder if this was like the beginning of Time Bandits, when the knight comes jumping through Kevin’s wall. You wouldn’t wonder if the poster is really a portal to another reality. One in which your mom didn’t die of cancer.

***

The first time you are aware that other realities exist is when your fourth grade teacher at Catholic school, Ms. Gritler, warns you about the dangers of subliminal messages and the accidental summoning of demons from listening to popular music.

She is a linebacker of a woman with hair on her knuckles and a penchant for making everything into a life and death battle with the forces of evil, even math. Word problems usually involve counting how many saints it takes to take down a demonic woolly mammoth, or some terrifying visions from the book of Revelations. She is meaner than the nuns, which would be an exaggeration if it weren’t true.

Ms. Gritler goes on about the hidden messages in rock songs. They used to be found playing vinyl records in reverse, but now that everything’s digital, they can code the evil directly, as if it were a setting in the software interface: Highlight [evil], drag and copy it into the latest Taylor Swift song.

You feel sorry for Ms. Gritler, despite the extra homework she gives before spring break, because you know that real evil doesn’t have to hide. You can see it in the empty bottles of Wild Turkey filling up the garbage can each week, the screaming fights between your mom and dad over stupid things like who ate the last yogurt, and in the way Peggy Noel got the other kids in your grade to call you Moonface.

But Ms. Gritler’s proselytizing about demonic possession leads you to researching role playing games. You buy the books and read them from cover to cover and back again.

Then you start a club at school, or at least you try to. It ends when the nuns find out that your make-believe game contains demons and devils. And no matter how many times you explain that you’re a lawful good wizard and that you cast “fireballs for Jesus,” they shut down your club and you have to go back to reading the books at home when you’re locked in your room at night.

This has marked you as a troublemaker and a girl who “does not understand what reality is.” You know perfectly well what reality is—you have to go home to it every night. But a break every now and then wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

***

The summer after your seventh-grade year is when you earn your first hole punch on the frequent psychiatric breakdown card. You get a free straitjacket on your tenth one.

It should be the greatest summer ever, since your acne has cleaned up (mostly), and you’re going to be in eighth grade. Peggy Noel even had the decency to move to another school.

But then your neighbor Billy dies of leukemia. You didn’t know he was sick until your mom takes you out to play Putt-Putt. You thought it was strange because she was screaming at your dad about not having money to afford groceries the night before, then there you are, jamming a colored ball into a faded clown’s mouth that is totally not going to give you nightmares.

She tells you about Billy on the sixth hole, cementing your hatred of golf and clowns for the rest of your life (not that that takes much encouragement).

You cry and cry, bringing the attention of other adults. Real adults. Ones with jobs and a distinct lack of neck tattoos. They don’t believe your mom when she tells them everything is fine.

You just want them to go away. Eventually the old guy with liver spots on his hands tries to rub your shoulder, so you scream at the top of your lungs that you just got your period. He backs away as if he’s encountered a two-headed llama, and nobody bothers you after that.

Exhausted, you leave Putt-Putt.

You inform your mom how stupid it was to bring you out in public to give you the news about Billy. How humiliating it was. How a real mom wouldn’t have done that.

You regret the words instantly, but you’re too mad to apologize. It’s so silent after that you can hear her heartbeat, see it pulsating beneath the hummingbird tattoo.

That night you sob into your pillow about Billy. You didn’t even really like him that much. He used to pinch you and throw rocks at you when you were younger.

But he’s dead. It’s not really his death you’re mourning, but yours. You can’t quite wrap your head around the whole idea of not existing. It seems so bloody awful.

By morning, you’ve forgotten about Billy (temporarily). You’re back in your room eating a bowl of generic sugar flakes with a mixing spoon because the rest of them are covered with old, wet food in the sink, when the closet door opens.

A gnome steps out. Well, you’re not completely sure it’s a gnome. It’s short, has wicked-looking ears with hair hanging off the tops, and has a nose like a twist of taffy.

The surprise is mutual. It shrieks, clearly realizing it’s in the wrong room, and disappears back into the closet.

You realize with faint objectivity that you are currently screaming, and not just a little bit. You’re pretty sure that if you actually owned any glassware, it would be in danger of breaking.

Your mom bursts through the door. By the look on her face, she’s expecting that either: a) the room is on fire, b) you’re on fire, or c) you’re on fire in a burning room while simultaneously juggling flaming batons. When she realizes none of those are true (you’ve never juggled in your life), the mixture of fear and concern turns to aggravation. You know this by the way her nostrils flare.

Stupidly you tell your mom exactly what you know you saw. This prompts confusion, quickly turning to accusation. The conflict escalates until she’s tearing apart your room, throwing blankets and stuffed animals in all directions looking for drugs, while you hang on her arm, sobbing.

Eventually you try to take back what you saw, but your earlier insistence has doomed you. After your room has been destroyed by the tornado of mothering, she slams the door, leaving you shivering in sweat.

***

A week after that, you’re in the back room of the administration office. You didn’t even know they had rooms past the front area where the old ladies who smell like cheese work at computer terminals.

The psychiatrist has dragon breath and pit stains. You sit on a metal folding chair across from his desk. It’s missing the plastic piece on the front left leg, so it wobbles. Because your parents don’t have health insurance, they asked the school for help, and they sent you to this dollar store version of what a psychiatrist should be for evaluation.

Despite the glazed-over eyes and the bed head, he’s a sneaky bastard. He gets you talking about favorite movies, and in the midst of your excitement you tell him that you love The Matrix, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Wizard of Oz.

When he starts scribbling in his notebook, you realize your mistake and try to confuse him by adding a bunch of silly saccharine animated movies to the list, but he’s not buying it. He triple underlines the first movies you said and cracks a smile.

After this, you give him nothing else that he can use against you. You tell him you made up the gnome thing to get back at your mom for telling you about Billy’s death in such a stupid way, but you can see he doesn’t believe you. You’ll have to go back to the psychiatrist twice a month.

***

A few months later, the gnome comes back. He’s whistling when he leaves the closet. You just turned your light out, so you’re wide awake.

He stops at the end of your bed, his head darting around as he realizes he’s in the wrong place again. He makes a mad dash back to the closet, slamming the door behind him.

You jump up, flip on your light, and fling open the door. The mostly empty closet greets you. Two sad dresses your mom bought you at Goodwill hang against the side, swaying softly as if something had passed by in haste.

After this, you lose your objective view of reality. Any hint of déjà vu becomes a glitch in the matrix, you find yourself constantly checking closet doors for portals into other lands, and you desperately want to break every mirror you see, hoping it’s a window to the other side.

Your behavior is noticed at school, but you don’t care. You know you saw the gnome, twice. But the way you stare longingly at mirrors and wardrobes, the backpack of supplies you carry just in case, the bags under your eyes from the all-night vigils camped in front of your closet—these draw the ire of your classmates, which in turn earns you more visits to the psychiatrist and his rickety metal chair.

Eventually, you tire of the negative attention and the lack of sleep, leave your backpack at home, and end your nightly end-of-the-bed stake out.

You learn to hide your weirdness, file off the oddly angled ends of your personality, and fit in. The herd approves of your actions. Not by including you in any of their reindeer games. Instead they bestow their graciousness by not calling you Alice or September anymore, which never really bothered you in the first place because they’re some of your favorite characters.

In a way, fitting in is worse. You feel like a traitor to yourself. Part of you wonders if you actually came from beyond the portal. If this place is really the nightmare land where troublesome children are sent. This feeling never goes away.

***

At the tail end of the years before the unicorn sighting, you step out in front of a burnt orange Suburban going forty miles an hour, nearly getting creamed.

***

It wasn’t a suicide attempt, or a cry for help. Nothing of that sort.

Despite your earlier troubles, you’ve been making it through high school with minimum fuss. You even have a few friends that you Skype with every night, chatting about the latest gossip at school. It almost feels as if you have your very own CW show, minus the drama and outrageous fashion budget.

You’re thinking about your chemistry test when you get a text from your dad to call him. Since your parents separated, he barely talks to you. In true Dad fashion, he blurts out that your mother, his ex-wife, has stage four cancer and only has a few months to live.

***

Your dad moves in with you and your mom to take care of her. You can’t help but notice how kind he is to her, the way he brings flowers he picked in the park every day, and that he always lets her choose the Pandora station and talks in a sweet voice, never once raising it.

You can’t help but wonder why he didn’t act like this before. Why did it take cancer to make him a better person? Why can’t you have both a healthy mom and a dad that gives a shit?

Sometimes you find yourself making snotty remarks to him, which only makes you feel like a terrible person.

You spend your evenings on the couch reading books to her. At first you read her those sexy shifter novels she loves, but then she tells you she wants to hear about worlds other than this one.

The stories you used to love are buried beneath the bed in a cardboard box that smells like stale beer. You start with Stardust because you know she’s seen the movie. You read the whole thing that night, staying up late, laughing, sharing mother-daughter glances, and crying at all the right parts. Your dad stays out of the living room, occasionally peeking in with a bittersweet smile on his face.

This becomes your ritual as she winds down her life. Eventually you have to move to the hospital, and crowd onto the bed to read to her. You go through every portal fantasy you own, and when you run out, your dad appears with books he found at the library.

During the thin days, when you feel like Atrax in the Swamp of Sadness, she asks you about the gnome. You tell her the truth. You tell her everything, including how you used to feel that this world wasn’t really your home, that you belonged in that other place, beyond the closet door.

She’s quiet for a long time afterward, and you worry that you’ve disappointed her, so you remind her that you don’t think that way anymore. That you know what reality is.

She starts sobbing, and you worry that her bones will break, especially when she starts wheezing. When she’s finished, she says in a soft voice that she wishes she’d been a better parent. At first you think she’s admonishing herself for raising a daughter who believed in portals to other worlds. Then you realize what she really meant. She’s looking at you with watery eyes and a skeletal smile. You burst into tears, and together you lay arm in arm until she falls asleep and the nurse makes you leave for the night.

She dies the next day while you’re at school.

***

This brings you back to the unicorn in your room. You are, without a doubt, a completely different person than when you were a young girl camping in front of the closet door, hoping a hairy-eared, taffy-nosed gnome would come out.

Despite the distractions of trailer-park drama, you’re getting good grades in school. Enough to warrant a scholarship to attend the local university.

In some ways you’ve come to terms with being an outsider from another land, sent through a portal to this world. You’re going to make the best of it, much like Lucy Pevensie did when she became Queen Lucy the Valiant.

Even though it’s going to take you a long time to get over your mom’s death, and you probably never will, you and your dad are closer than you’ve ever been. You feel stronger for the experience, like a part of your mom has come with you on this new journey.

But the unicorn. He demands an answer, neighing softly before the closet door.

He beckons you with his majestic horn, like an erstwhile boyfriend giving you a come-along smile.

You just need to jump astride his back, and the closet door will magically open so you can return to that wonderful unknown place from where you came. The adventure you always wanted.

You move to the side of the unicorn, inhale its musky scent. There’s something primal in him, like the ochre of the earth runs through his veins. Then you wrap your arms around his neck and tears of joy come flooding down your face.

The unicorn is excited. He thinks you’re going to come along. He stomps his foot and shakes his mane.

You open the door for the unicorn. He stills, and makes a motion with his head that asks, Are you sure?

You nod, reluctantly at first, but then with more conviction. With head held in somber grace, the unicorn walks through the closet, leaving you forever.

You close the door. At first, you worry you made the wrong decision and almost fling the door back open. But then you remember what your mom said, about being a better parent. Even if she couldn’t, you know you can: for her, for you, for your future daughter.

You’re going to be okay. In fact, you’re going to be even better than okay. You’re not going to avoid the things you loved when you were younger: the role play games, the dorky movies, the piles of books stacked in your closet. You’re going to be the girl who saw gnomes and almost rode a unicorn. The girl from beyond the portal—in this world.

You unlock your door and go out. You find your dad staring out the window. Salt lines streak his face. You start making dinner from whatever’s left in the kitchen. After a minute, he seems to wake. He comes over and kisses you on the forehead. He smells a little earthy. Together you make dinner.

Copyright © 2019 by Thomas K. Carpenter