by Michelle R. Rasey
Over the course of a year, I have about a one-in-one-hundred chance of dying. Anything could kill me. The statistic leaves room for the random nature of death. Sure, most deaths are due to things like heart attacks and cancer, but then there's always the freak nail in the heart or being hit not once, not twice, but five times by lightning. Or holes. A lot of people die in holes. More than you would think.
Things that aren't supposed to happen, happen all the time. I know because it's my job to figure out how often the impossible occurs. As an actuary, I use math to confine death's anomalies to an acceptable numeric range.
But I never expected to experience an anomaly firsthand. Nor did I think it would all start with splintered wood. Or that I would be standing outside in a bitter Kansas winter while animal control inspected the damage.
"What do you think would do this?" I ran my fingers along the raw grooves worn into the side of the ancient oak in my backyard. Small bits of wood gathered under my nails and I stopped before I ruined the red polish. The same uneven grooves could be found on the windowsill leading to my bedroom.
Dan, the county animal control guy, shrugged. "I don't know. Sometimes deer will rub their antlers against trees, but this is too high and too deep for a deer." He pulled out a digital camera from a pocket in his overalls and took a picture. "You said there were tracks?"
"Yes, under my bedroom window. There are more gouges too." I turned from the tree, and began to slog through the snow back toward the house. Winter in Kansas was usually less snow and more frigid wind that slashed you like a razor blade in a gang fight (or so I imagined, actuaries weren't known for gangbanging--too risky). But this year there'd been three big snowstorms. Two in the last week, just in time to welcome me back. New York got enough snow, though; that I was used to it.
Dan whistled when he saw the demolished windowsill and cracked glass. "Looks like something wanted in."
I pulled my black wool coat tighter around me and nodded. "That's what it sounded like." I shivered, recalling the sound of cracking wood and the huffing of an animal. Not the best way to wake up.
"When did it start?" He stretched to run his hands along the sill, or what was left of it anyway. Most of it lay in jagged pieces on the ground.
"About a week ago, after my aunt died. Last night was the worst." Last night, I had thought maybe I wouldn't live to see morning if whatever it was got in. I pointed at the ground. "What do you make of the tracks?"
Dan squatted down, camera out again. "Hoof prints. Large, too." He snapped some more pictures. "Like a horse. Big enough to be a Clydesdale. But unshod."
"Horses don't have antlers to gouge trees with."
He looked up at me, his mouth a grim line. "No, they don't."
I thrust my hands deep into my coat pockets and tried to ignore the foreboding that prickled across my skin. Dan returned his attention to the hoof prints and measured them with a ruler he pulled from one of his ubiquitous overall pockets.
Handy things, overalls. I didn't think I'd seen a man in head-to-toe denim since I'd left Sunnybrook for New York City eight years ago. Not that I saw many men anyway. My job kept me busy seven days a week, twelve hours a day. There was no time for dating, which was fine by me. Around the office I was known as the dateless wonder, the woman who would rather curl up with her calculator and an Excel spreadsheet than a man. Yeah, well, numbers never let me down.
As men went though, Dan was handsome enough. His toffee eyes and unruly brown hair would've been a major fashion faux pas in the financial district, but out here it fit. He looked rugged and capable. And he filled out his farmer overalls nicely with broad shoulders and muscular thighs. Not that I had noticed...much.
Dan tucked the ruler and camera back into his overalls. "Any more prints or gouges?"
I shook my head. "No. Just here and the tree."
"Well, I guess I'll be going then."
My stomach clenched. When Dan left, I would be alone. "Don't you have to write up a report or something before you leave?"
"I'll do that back at the office, Miss Willhite."
His gaze flickered to where I worried my bottom lip between my teeth. "I suppose I could work on it here."
"You could come inside. I'll put on a pot of coffee." Did Aunt Leilah even have coffee? I'd been eating out and hadn't opened a cupboard. This was her home, not mine. "And call me Sarah. Miss Willhite was my aunt."
"That sounds good...Sarah," he said with a grin. "Just let me get the forms from my car."
I found coffee in the freezer and had it brewing by the time Dan came in. He stomped the snow from the bottom of his boots in an effort to be polite and not leave melting puddles on the linoleum. Not that I cared. I'd already sold the house and was just sticking around long enough to sign the paperwork. Then it was back to New York where the only wild animal I would have to worry about was a pigeon.
"Just have a seat at the table. I'll bring the coffee in a second." I pulled two mugs from the cupboard, and located some cream in the fridge. Aunt Leilah must've gone grocery shopping right before she died; the cream was unopened and had a week to go on the expiration date.
"Thanks." Dan sat in one of the ancient oak chairs my aunt had inherited from her grandmother, my great-grandmother. He pushed aside boxes of stuff that I'd been trying to sort--one pile safe for the church garage sale, another to be burned because it would make any good Christian's faith curl-- and pulled a pen from the chest pocket of his overalls. "Tell me about the first time you heard the animal."
"It was the night after the funeral. I was sleeping in my old room and woke up to something hitting the side of the house and snorting." The foundation had vibrated at the assault, the reverberations pulsing through the floor like a small earthquake.
"What did it look like?"
"It's always gone by the time I look." Actually, I never saw anything because I hid under the covers and held my breath, but that was a detail Dan didn't need to know. "It's been back every night and last night it was really bad." I shuddered as I spoke, a feeling of powerlessness sweeping over me. How could I defend myself against something that could shake a brick foundation?
"You've never seen it then?"
"No, sorry." I poured the coffee and brought it over to the table. Dan rushed to move the boxes of my aunt's belongings out of the way and accidentally pushed one off the table.
He lunged, trying to catch it, his chair crashing to the floor behind him as he missed. The box landed on its side sending little black balls rolling under our feet. "Oh, geez. Sorry about that."
I set the coffee down, and dove under the table, anxious to put them away before he saw anything, but it was too late.
"What the hell?" He joined me under the table. "Are these what I think they are?" Dan held one of the balls up and its wrinkled raisin eyes stared at me.
I flushed and took it from him. "My aunt was peculiar. She collected odd things." The house was full of her eccentric collections, everything from garden gnomes to zebra unicorns. I couldn't wait to get rid of it all. I'd never been allowed to play with any of it.
"They're shrunken heads, aren't they? I went to a museum once that had them." He grabbed another one off the floor, and examined it, curiosity lighting his face.
"Yes, they're shrunken heads." The linen closet had been full of them. What my aunt did with the wizened heads, I didn't want to know, but, if I did, I could probably find the answer in one of the dozens of spell books she had kept. Aunt Leilah had believed in magic, and practiced it, dragging me into her rituals after I came to live with her at the age of ten. I had played along, but never really believed.
"I wonder what she used them for?"
Dan chuckled, and picked up another head, studying its dry features. "Odd isn't really the word for your aunt. Morbid, maybe."
Crazy too, but I kept my thoughts to myself. No need to speak ill of the dead. Besides, if anything Aunt Leilah had believed was true, she would hear me. I herded the last head into the box and crawled out from under the table. Shoving the box against the baseboard and out of the way, I climbed to my feet and went to wash my hands at the kitchen sink. Dan picked up his chair and set a shrunken head next to his paperwork. How he touched it without his skin crawling, I couldn't understand.
My hands clean, I returned to the table, settling into the seat next to Dan. "So what do you think?"
He glanced up at me from his paperwork. "Well, I can't really say what animal it is that's bothering you. There's nothing tall enough or strong enough to do the damage I've seen. Have you thought about leaving? Maybe it's attracted to the activity in the house."
"I can't leave. At least not for a few more days." And Sunnybrook was a small town in a string of too-small-for-a-stoplight-let-alone-a-hotel towns on the plains of Kansas. I had no place to go.
"Do you have a gun?"
I looked at him, indignant. "A gun? Are you suggesting I shoot a defenseless animal?"
"If it comes down to it. And it doesn't look so defenseless to me. Aggressive and unusually strong would be a better description."
I gave him a conciliatory nod. He had a point, but even so, I didn't own a gun. Of all the things my aunt had collected, guns hadn't been among them. Mayan machetes blessed by shaman and those poison dart blower thingies, yes, but guns, no. Maybe I could call the bank and ask them to hurry up the paperwork on the house. The bank president had always seemed to like me. He'd even attended the funeral, and the sooner I got out of Kansas, the better.
"You know, it could be a loose bull from a neighboring farm." Dan folded his paperwork, tucking it into yet another pocket. I bet his overalls held more than my briefcase.
"Attacking trees and a house?"
He shrugged. "Angry bulls will go for anything. I would call some of the local farmers, see if anyone is missing a bull."
"That's a good suggestion," I said and then realized I didn't know who the local farmers were anymore. Did the Muellers still own the red silo in the field next to the house?
He stood, offering a hand. "Sorry I can't be of more help. If it comes again, give the county another call, we might be able to get a bloodhound to try and track it down."
His hand felt strong and solid in mine. I didn't want to let go. He made me feel safe. "I'll keep that in mind. Thank you for your help."
He gave me an assessing look, hand lingering in mine. "Are you...free tonight? Maybe we could do dinner?" He rushed the question, forcing all the consonants and vowels into a big jumble, but I managed to decode his meaning.
"Dinner?" Had a man just asked me out?
He nodded, still holding my hand.
"Yes. I'd love to," I said breathily with a wide smile. My friends--well friend singular really--and co-workers back in New York wouldn't believe it. Me, the dateless wonder, the woman on the wrong side of thirty and never been kissed, finally agreeing to go on a date.
Fear is a powerful catalyst.
I dumped the contents of my suitcase on the bed and went through everything systematically. T-shirts and jeans went in one pile, and potential date clothes went in another. In the end, the date clothing pile held only the morbid black suit I'd worn to Aunt Leilah's funeral. Unacceptable.
Recalling the row of evening gowns hanging in Aunt Leilah's closet, I went to see what she had. There were dozens of them, more than I had realized. Judging by some of the outdated styles, a few went back several decades. There was even a glittering beaded sheath dress from the eighties complete with linebacker shoulder pads. My funeral suit with its elegant tailoring looked better by the second, but then I found it, a white dress hanging at the very back, hiding behind some taffeta monstrosity in a leprechaun green. What she, an old spinster, had done with these dresses, I couldn't fathom.
I shoved the green dress into the back of the closet, and took out the white one, holding it against me, watching the graceful swirls of georgette fabric unfurl around my body. It reminded me of something Ginger Rogers would wear dancing with Fred Astaire. My aunt had loved those old films and, secretly, so did I, but I would never admit it.
Of course, the dress wasn't as old as Ginger. The store name on the tag alone told me that, but the designer probably watched the same movies my aunt had. I could picture Aunt Leilah buying it, see the way she would've fingered the low neckline with a far-away gleam in her eye. A gleam that took her back to a time when she had been young and beautiful.
She'd never married. Didn't like men and really hated my father. She referred to him as 'that scoundrel', refusing to say his name, something that sparked one of our biggest arguments.
"You have your mother's face, Sarah," she'd said, hand gripping my chin, "But that scoundrel's eyes."
"My father's name was Jack," I'd said, defiantly pulling away from her grip.
"That name is a dirty word in this house. My sister would still be alive if it weren't for that man. Men ruined your mother and they'll ruin you if you're not careful," she'd spat, raising her hand.
I don't know if she meant to hit me or not, I hadn't stuck around to find out. Instead, shouting a battle cry of 'Jack, Jack', I ran to my room and slammed the door behind me. When hunger finally drove me to the kitchen, she made us grilled cheese sandwiches, which we ate in silence. We never spoke of my father again. But I whispered his name to myself at night, an empty prayer.
What the hell was he doing with me?
He helped me step up into his jeep and we took off, heading south to the only date-worthy restaurant in a fifty-mile radius: Tornado Tavern. We joined dozens of other couples on similar sweaty palmed dates. I ordered steak, Dan had the salmon, and we shared a bottle of Merlot over small talk.
"So how does Sunnybrook compare to New York? Do you miss it?" Dan asked.
"Not really. My parents originally lived there and I have memories from when I was little of places like Macy's and Central Park. In a way, it's like going back home. Sunnybrook is the alien landscape for me. What about you? Have you lived here all your life?"
"I left for several years. Went to school, traveled, got married," he paused and looked down at his napkin. "Now I'm back and single again. Doesn't seem to be any place else I want to be."
"Did you get divorced then?" In New York, divorce was a bloodsport.
"No. She died. Cancer."
"I'm so sorry." I reached out and touched his hand.
"It was a while ago." He blinked and shifted in his seat.
"Sorry. I know I shouldn't talk about that on a first date. I think it's against the rules."
"That's okay. I don't know the rules anyway."
He chuckled and then asked, "So what about you? Any ex-husbands in your past?"
I shook my head. "No."
"I've never been married."
"No. None of those either."
"Why not?" From the way he arched an eyebrow, I decided it had been a mistake to be so honest. He was wondering about me, wondering what might be wrong with me. Maybe there were rules for a reason.
I forced a lighthearted laugh. "Oh, you know, busy with school and work. I worked full-time to put myself through college." Not to mention everyone I loved had left me.
I didn't have a chance to follow that line of thought, though, as someone put a warm hand on my shoulder. "Sarah, so good to see you again."
I turned to see the bank president standing over me. I stood and gave him a quick hug. "Mr. Branscome, good to see you too."
"Sorry to interrupt, but I didn't get much time to talk to you at the funeral. How are you holding up?"
"Okay." I said with a smile.
He noticed my dress and whistled. "You look beautiful. You remind me so much of your aunt back in the day. Did you know, she dated my brother?"
"What? Aunt Leilah had a boyfriend?" I couldn't keep the shock from my voice.
"Oh yes. She and my brother dated for months. It was unfortunate what happened. They were such a good couple."
"What do you mean? They broke up?"
"No, Martin died, impaled on a splintered log in the little oak grove behind your house. Leilah said he tripped trying to keep her from falling after an animal startled her. Got him right in the heart." Mr. Branscome's tone had been resolute, almost matter-of-fact until the end when his voice faded. His eyes got a little watery too.
"I didn't know. I'm so sorry." I patted his shoulder.
He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed his eyes. "Weird thing is, they never found the stick. And something sure tore up that grove. There were gouges more than six inches deep in the trunks of those trees."
"Gouges?" I said with a look to Dan.
"Yep. Leilah said she didn't get a good look at whatever it was that did it, but it was large. Bigger than a bull." Catching sight of the growing horror in my eyes, he took my hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Don't let my stories scare you. It was all a long time ago. I'm sure whatever did that damage has since moved on. Anyway, let me know if there's anything I can do for you. You're almost family. Martin and Leilah would've married if he'd lived."
"Thank you. Do you think there's any way to speed up the paperwork on the sale of the house?"
He nodded. "We can try. Give me a call first thing Monday morning and I'll see what I can do. Until then I'll leave you two to your dinner."
I gave him another hug and then he left us. Stunned, I didn't say anything for several long seconds.
Dan cleared his throat. "You okay? You look a bit shell-shocked."
"The gouges...it's happened before."
"It sure is a strange coincidence."
"And Aunt Leilah hated men. She didn't let me date in high school. Told me to never get married. That men ruined good women. I didn't even know she'd ever had a boyfriend." I suddenly felt as if I'd never known her.
"She also had a large collection of shrunken human heads. I hate to say it, Sarah, but your aunt made odd look normal."
I nodded in agreement, wondering what Dan would say about all the nights Aunt Leilah and I danced under the full moon plunging silver knives into the ground? Would he think I was odd too? I frowned at the thought and sipped my wine. "My aunt believed in magic."
"Is that what the shrunken heads were for?"
"I don't know. I don't believe in magic, and I'm afraid I didn't absorb any of her teachings."
"You're probably the better for it."
"I like to think so." In fact, I went to church. Regular churchgoers outlived people who slept in on Sundays. Faith kept people alive. The numbers said so.
"Have I told you how lovely you look?" Dan asked, changing the subject.
I followed his lead with a coy smile. "Thank you." I allowed myself to let go of my worries for the rest of the evening and enjoy Dan's flirtatious attention. He touched me several times, twice on the shoulder and once on the hand, rubbing his thumb across my knuckles until I shivered. I knew my numbers well enough to know the more he touched me, the more he liked me. When he leaned in to give me a kiss in the parking lot before opening the passenger door for me, I met him with equal passion.
My first kiss was nothing like I had expected. He tasted of wine and cinnamon, and I drank him in as if he could nourish me.
"Get a room," someone said behind us.
We jumped and exchanged sheepish grins. Dan opened the door for me. "Maybe we should take the free advice."
I giggled and stepped into his jeep. "Sounds good to me.
I alternated between shivery anticipation and teeth chattering nerves on the drive home. Aunt Leilah's death marked the end of an era and the beginning of one in which I got to choose my own destiny. Only I didn't know what I wanted. I'd been taught to close myself off, to be alone, and I had wallowed in that teaching up until now. Dan didn't know it, but he was challenging a lifetime of conditioning in a single date. I looked at him, watching the way he concentrated on his driving. Snow slicked the roads and the wind punched into the jeep with enough force that the vehicle shuddered and bucked like a wild horse being broken in by a sadist. The only thing keeping us on the road was Dan's calm reaction to the elements. He met each erratic gust of wind with a controlled shift of the wheel. No wonder I liked him so much.
But, on a steep curve about a mile from the house, a large white form came out of nowhere and leaped over the hood of the car. Dan had no choice but to slam on the brakes.
"What the hell was that?" He flashed his brights and peered out into the night.
"I don't know." I rubbed my shoulder where the seat belt had bitten into me.
Dan didn't reply, but shifted gears and resumed driving. A few seconds later, the white form appeared again, this time landing square on the hood. The metal buckled under its weight and it cracked the windshield with a well placed kick of a leg, one with a hoof at the end, although it all happened so fast it was hard to be sure of what I was seeing.
The last thing I remembered as the car began to flip, end over end, was a clear glimpse of something that looked like a horse. That and the fact rollover fatalities came in at eighty two percent, and car accidents were the number one killer for people in my age group.
I awoke...hours?...minutes? later to the sound of heavy breathing in my ear. I turned my head and came face-to-face with the velvet muzzle of an impossibly white horse sporting a large horn on its head.
I passed out again.
I came to a second time to find myself lying in the snow-covered grass on the side of the road with the horse standing over me. The position left no doubt that 'it' was actually a 'he'. I crawled out from under his round stomach taking care not to touch him.
He nickered, a trilling sound that raised the hair on the back of my neck. "Are you going to stay awake this time?"
There was a trace of irritation in his voice, which I found amusing until I remembered this was a horse talking, not a person. Animals were not supposed to talk. Not in my reality. Deciding it was head trauma from the accident and best ignored, I made my way over to the car where Dan hung upside down in the jeep, still buckled in his seat.
He appeared to be breathing, but was unconscious with a seeping cut on his forehead. The scent of gasoline hung in the air. Not wanting to risk Dan blowing up in an explosion (rare but still a scary possibility), I undid his seat belt and dragged him--hands under his armpits, every muscle straining--to the side of the road. He groaned when I set him down a little too hard, banging his head against the asphalt.
"Sorry," I whispered as I ripped cloth off the hem of my skirt and applied pressure to the blood spilling down his face.
"Why do you bother with him?" the horse asked.
I continued to ignore the talking horse and searched Dan's pockets for a cell phone. The sooner I called an ambulance, the sooner I was sure the horse would stop talking. When his pockets came up empty, I returned to the jeep as the horse circled round, hooves click-clacking on the road, to watch me through the car's windows.
The cell phone was in the glove compartment, along with a handgun. Nervous about the horse, I took the gun too.
After I told the ambulance dispatcher where to find us, I went to sit by Dan. The horse continued to circle us, snorting and stamping the ground aggressively. I pretended he wasn't there and he probably wasn't. Horses didn't have horns on their heads, therefore, the horse currently glowering at me was not real. My brain was bruised or something.
Except, determining the horse wasn't real didn't banish it like I had hoped. Instead, he came to stand in front of me and said, "Why do you care so much for a man? He will ruin you."
God, it was like he was channeling my aunt. Must be getting his lines from my subconscious memories. I resolutely looked past him, but he only edged closer to tower over Dan.
"I should run him through right now. Strike him in the heart before he does any damage." He lowered his horn.
"No!" I shouted, jumping to my feet and trying to push the horse away. For a figment of my imagination, his hard muscle and velvet coat felt real enough against my skin. He didn't move at my touch, but, at the faint sound of sirens, he whirled around and disappeared into the distance, moving impossibly fast. Faster than a horse should be able to run.
Feeling faint, I sank to the ground next to Dan, and stayed there until the paramedics arrived. Around us the wind howled and clawed, pushing at our clothes, trying to find a way in, a way to blow us apart.
Dan got to stay in the hospital overnight because of his head injury while I got an x-ray and a clean bill of health, which was perplexing. What about the horse, then?
The police dropped me off at the house where I knocked back a few shots of whiskey before climbing into bed. I would call Mr. Branscome in the morning about speeding up the paperwork and then I would hightail it back to New York City. The Big Apple might be ranked number one in reporting alien abductions, but, as far as I knew, had never claimed talking horses that drove cars off the road.
I climbed into bed where the stress of the evening sucked me into sleep almost immediately until a loud thud shook the foundation of the house. My mystery animal was back, once again attempting to batter through the brick walls of the house.
Heart thumping, I sat up holding my blankets in front of me as if they were a shield and held my breath waiting for the next hit. It came a few seconds later, hard enough to vibrate the glass in the window.
I tiptoed to crouch under the windowsill and lifted the curtain to peek out. I couldn't see anything in the moonless night. When the next thud came, all I caught was a flash of white before I jumped back, startled at the noise. I took a couple of deep breaths to steady myself and reached for the phone to call for help.
The line was dead.
A chill ran up my spine and I began to shake with cold adrenaline even though I told myself the wind had probably taken down the phone lines. I was definitely not starring in my own horror movie because those things didn't happen in real life.
"Come to me, maiden," said a deep voice. A voice I recognized.
The talking horse.
Another hit, and, this time, the horse jumped, shattering my window with his horn. Shoving his head through, he looked at me with narrowed eyes and said, "Are you going to come out or do I have to come get you?"
I thought of Dan's gun--which I had kept--sitting on the kitchen table and about the pending sale of the house that probably wouldn't go well if a wall was missing. "I'll come out. Let me change my clothes."
The horse nodded, a curt movement, and withdrew.
With trembling fingers, I exchanged my nightgown for jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers. In the kitchen, I grabbed the gun and shoved it down the back of my pants praying it wouldn't go off and fill my rear with bullets. Firearms were involved in less than one percent of all accidents, not statistically significant, unless, like me, you had just goosed your ass with one. Flicking on the back porch light, I stepped outside.
The cool winter air swirled around me, spinning gray fog from my breath. For once the wind was calm, and didn't attack me the second I was out in the open. Instead, it caressed my cheek, gentle as a kiss, but cold as death. I stood on the edge of the porch, my fingers twitching, ready to reach for the gun, and stared at the horse.
"Maiden." He took a step toward me and kneeled, horn touching the ground.
"My name is Sarah." Where was this maiden stuff coming from? "Who…what are you?"
"You can't be real." I blinked rapidly, thinking it would clear my vision. He was just a horse.
"Touch me and find out." Zrian bowed his head in open invitation.
Hesitant, I move toward him, one hand at the small of my back, gun handle pressed into my palm. He seemed to sense my trepidation, and held still while I used my free hand to trace the line of his jaw to the gold horn spiraling up from the center of his forehead. The tip was sharp enough to hurt. The tree in my backyard came to mind along with the realization he'd been sharpening his horn.
Still not quite ready to accept this was really happening, I gripped the horn and gave it a firm yank, but it didn't budge. Feeling around the horse's head didn't yield any evidence of a harness either. The horn was real, or at least I couldn't prove it fake. Okay, fine. Unicorns were real. Why would one leap in front of Dan's car, keep its horn razor sharp, and try to get into my house with brute force? Weren't unicorns supposed to be sweet and docile? It was always the men who were the bad guys in the myths I'd heard.
"Why are you here?"
"I've always been here. I was here before the house, the grove, and your aunt's mother's mother. I was here before humans counted time."
Well that explained the middle of the night visitations. He couldn't tell time. I almost laughed, but I swallowed it back. "Why did you try to kill me tonight?"
He tossed his head, blue eyes flashing in the light from the back porch. "Maidens are not for the world of men."
"No man must touch you."
"Well considering Dan was the first date I've had, I don't think that is a problem."
"You have good sense then, unlike your mother. Although," he extended his neck to look at me, "you do look like her, but different around the eyes."
"My mother? You knew her?" So, talking unicorns ran in my family? Like breast cancer?
"She served as my maiden once. Then your aunt, and now you."
How was it no one had told me I came from a long line of unicorn maidens? I should've been told back when I was a kid, back when I would've believed this was real without questioning my sanity. Because, as solid as the unicorn appeared, there was still a seed of doubt in me. One that thought I should call my HMO and see if I could get an emergency referral to a psychiatrist. I probably needed more x-rays too. Lots more x-rays. And drugs. Good ones that would knock me out and stop this nightmare.
"Are you ready to serve, maiden?" Zrian asked.
"What exactly do maidens do?"
"Stay pure and serve me."
"You must not indulge in the sins of the flesh."
"You mean sex."
I shook my head, still overwhelmed, and unable to reconcile reality with my new 'surreality'. "But why haven't I seen you before?"
"I didn't need you, but now I do."
"To do what?"
"I need your hands." He nuzzled my palm. "I cannot open the gates of paradise alone."
"You know where paradise is?" This was news to me. Didn't unicorns spend all their time looking for maidens to poke with their horn?
"I was born there. Mount me and I'll show you."
Silent, I looked back to the house, trying to judge how fast I could get back inside. The odds of escape were not good. I remembered how fast he'd moved when the ambulance had come. Even so, I shifted my weight onto the balls of my feet, my body tense and ready to run. Most victims are killed within the first three hours of their kidnapping. Better to fight now than let a unicorn drag me to parts unknown.
Catching the subtle movement, Zrian snorted. "I will not allow you to abandon your duty." He lunged for me, teeth scraping my skin as they closed around the back of my shirt. I shrieked and kicked, but his hold was absolute. With me dangling from his mouth, we walked through the copse of trees behind the house and into the open fields beyond where, with a powerful toss of his head, he threw me onto his back.
"Peace and sleep, maiden," he said.
His words carried a commanding weight that hit my lungs like a dive into deep water. I was asleep before I could think to protest.
The next thing I knew, I was falling. I woke with a scream to find myself airborne followed by a hard landing in fragrant grass. I scrambled to my feet and backed away from the unicorn. Where was I? How far had we traveled? Wherever we were, it wasn't winter anymore, but a warm spring.
Behind me, an imposing set of gold gates reflected the bright light of the rising sun. Through the bars I caught a glimpse of a lush garden filled with green trees and bright flowers. A white stone wall extended on either side of the gate, disappearing into an eternal distance.
In front of me stretched a rolling green meadow, the grass high enough to tickle my knees. In the horizon, I thought I could see the stand of trees that made up my backyard and beside it the big, red silo the neighboring farm used to store their corn crop. They wavered in and out of focus like a flawed vision of another world.
So this was paradise. What was next? A fairy godmother?
Zrian walked to the gate and stared through the bars. His voice an imperious tenor, he said, "Open the gate."
He whirled to face me, nostrils flaring. "Do not anger me, maiden. Open the gate."
He bared his teeth and lowered his head until the tip of his horn pricked my chest. I glared at him, one hand slipping behind me to confirm I still had Dan's gun.
"You are too much like your mother, maiden. Be careful your defiance does not earn you the same fate."
"What is that supposed to mean?" I eased the gun out from my waistband and held it out of sight. A vague plan took shape in my mind.
"She served me well for many years," he said, horn still in line with my heart. "And then she betrayed me."
"Because she had sex, didn't she?"
The unicorn shifted his weight, finally pulling back from me, and nodded. "She paid the penalty for it."
"The rock slide wasn't an accident." It wasn't a question. I flashed back to when I'd been a little girl with parents who loved me and tears gathered in my eyes. Unicorns were bastards.
Zrian didn't deny it. "No."
"And my aunt's boyfriend?"
"I killed her suitor before he could touch what was mine. I will do the same for you." He looked directly at me then with a steady gaze that told me he meant every word.
A fury I hadn't thought myself capable of bubbled up hot and thick. My mother, my aunt, and now me, all of us cursed with a serial-killing unicorn who had a hang-up about sex. Now I understood why men always hunted the unicorns in the myths; it was the only way to get laid without being lanced by a horn. Well, there was no way in hell I was about to let Zrian terrorize me. I would die first.
Without a word, I wrenched opened the gate. Zrian shoved past me to trot through, his swishing tail stinging my cheek. "You make a wise decision."
He paused, mid-step. "It's your duty."
"No, it's not."
He gave me a long, measuring look. "I will not be confined for long, maiden. I will come for you and yours."
I aimed the gun at him then, anger making my hand shake. Zrian had robbed me of my past. I wasn't about to let him have my future. "Are myths bulletproof?" I asked.
Zrian backed away from the gate with a nervous snort and said nothing.
"You come for me or mine again and this is what will greet you." I judged the shot as carefully as I could and squeezed the trigger. Turns out, unicorns are not faster than speeding bullets. The shot grazed his haunch and he screamed as blood spread a dirty stain across his white coat.
"The next time I see you, I'll kill you," I said, fury making my voice hard and powerful.
"I am immortal, maiden. As is your duty," he snarled at me.
I gestured at his wound. "It seems to me they didn't know about bullets back when you were made. If you want, we can test the limits of immortality now." I raised the gun again. This time, my hand didn't shake at all.
Zrian just stared at me. First, with hard animosity and then with a growing fear that dilated his pupils wide. From the nearby trees, large birds rose into the air and circled above him. Vultures.
Even paradise has a way to deal with rot.
Dan met me halfway back to the house. I recognized him from the white bandage on his head. At first, we were too far away to hear each other and had to settle for waving. As soon as we were within earshot, though, we began to run toward each other, shouting our hellos. I'd never been so relieved to see someone in my life.
Dan swept me up in a big hug. "Are you okay?"
I nodded, too breathless from running to talk.
"I came as soon as I could. When the police told me you were missing, I thought maybe it had gotten you."
"They thought I was missing?" I pulled back to look into his eyes. "I've only been gone a few hours."
"Make that a week."
I gaped at him in astonishment. "A week?" I glanced back behind me, wanting to catch sight of paradise's gate, to reassure myself that I wasn't losing my mind. The gleaming gold should've been easy to spot from a distance, but all I saw was frozen Kansas prairie. Not only had the weather changed, but the gate was gone as well. I sagged against Dan, overwhelmed.
"Are you all right?" He kissed me gently on the cheek.
"Yes, it's just a shock."
"Tell me about it." He kept an arm around me as we resumed walking.
"The animal, it was," I hesitated. Did I tell him the whole truth? About fairy tales come nightmares? Or did I keep that part of it to myself?
"A really big horse," Dan finished. "I know, I saw it. If I hadn't seen it though, I'm not sure I would've believed you. It didn't behave like any horse I've ever known."
"Yes, he was...unusual. He broke my window," I paused again trying to sort out how much to share, how much would be believed. "The phone was dead so I went outside and he chased me. I couldn't get back to the house."
"It's possible he was rabid. It's rare, but it does happen. Do you know where he is?"
Remembering Dan's gun, I pulled it out and gave it to him. "I shot him. He's back there." I pointed behind me. "Somewhere."
"How far back? We'll want to test him, be sure to contain any outbreak. He can't have been healthy behaving that way."
"I'm not sure exactly where he is. It doesn't even feel like I've been gone a week." I hadn't been walking that long, had I?
"Don't worry." He hugged me closer. "The county can bring in a bloodhound to track the body. Let's just get you back home. And then..." he trailed off looking intently at me.
"What?" Was there something in my hair? Self-conscious, I ran a hand through my tangled locks.
"We have to finish our date." He leaned in and kissed me before I could protest. Not that I really wanted to. Exhausted as I was, Dan's touch still sparked a tingling desire in me, one that demanded more.
They never found a body, just like they never found the stick that killed Marvin. The doctors checked me again for head trauma just to make sure I hadn't addled my brain in the car accident. For months, despite the normal test results, I thought I had. Maybe I hadn't shot anything but prairie mud. Perhaps it had all been a waking nightmare caused, in some undetectable way, by the accident. But then, I found one long, silver strand of hair from Zrian's tail on my sweatshirt.
I took perverse pleasure in wrapping it around the back of the engagement ring Dan gave me. A reminder I was a maiden no more.
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