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art by Melissa Mead

Unicorns, and Other Birthday Hazards

Jeff Hemenway writes fiction--mostly speculative--from his home in Sacramento, California, where he lives with his wife and his two children. His non-writing hobbies include cooking, drawing, singing badly, dancing even more badly, and being self-deprecating. Jeff's stories have also appeared in Isotropic Fiction and Big Pulp Magazine.

Greta sat cross-legged on the attic floor, the pink balloon tugging upward at her wrist as she stared slit-eyed at the age-grayed wooden door. Per the regulations, it was barred from the outside by a beam no less than three inches thick, held in place with a shiny gray combination lock. Her clock, the one from her bedroom that was shaped like an elephant, carved away seconds with almost-silent ticks. In thirteen hours and thirty-two minutes, Greta's birthday would be over and she would be allowed to leave.
Late morning light yawned between the bars over the attic's tiny window, throwing narrow slats across the carpet, over a pile of books Greta had read long ago, against the face of a refrigerator filled with snacks and drinks. The refrigerator didn't contain any cake. It didn't contain any candles. It certainly didn't contain any matches.
From the window, she heard the nasal chorus of whinnies that was common everywhere these days. Mostly ponies, she guessed, but probably some of them were unicorns. She hated the unicorns. Pretty much everyone hated the unicorns.
Greta sighed and stood up and got about escaping.
The wall opposite the attic window had a man-sized hole in the sheetrock that Father had made years ago when he sought to repair some plumbing that had rusted through. A cloud of gypsum hung across the opening like a veil, and beyond lurked electrical conduit, long fingers of copper piping, all wrapped in wisps of insulation like yellow candy floss.
Friends and family weren't allowed near the attic door on birthdays, but Gunther, the man guarding the door, was a chatty sort. He'd already tried to initiate a conversation three times this morning. She'd played at sullen brevity, giving one-word answers or no answers at all, hoping that if he tried to talk to her once she'd escaped, he wouldn't find the silence suspicious. After all, she had reason to be sullen today. They were going to make her wish.
Greta slipped off the loop of ribbon that anchored her to the balloon and watched it float to the ceiling, watched it bump to an uneasy rest, "HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY GRETA!" jagging across the surface in Wendy's inexpert scrawl. She stepped through the hole in the wall, out onto one wooden rail, taking care not to slip and come crashing through the dining room ceiling. The heat was bad enough in the attic, but in here it was a lead blanket, pressing against her lungs from the inside out. She reached the spot in the wood-plank ceiling where she had patiently carved through each slat, sneaking into the attic with Father's keyhole saw a few minutes each day over the last six months. Motes of sawdust fluttered down as she pushed upward on the Greta-sized trapdoor she had made, sliding it out of the way. She winced as it scraped across the roof, loud and conspicuous. She paused. Frozen in the moment, praying for continued silence.
Gunther said nothing.
She jumped up and pulled her body onto the roof, scrabbling her feet for purchase. When she was out, she slid the section of roof carefully back into place.
Greta scanned the clearing around her house for witnesses, peering far down the winding country road that led into the heart of Greengrove, eyeballing the little path that led into the forest. She saw nobody, just a handful of emaciated ponies nipping at crabgrass in the half-hearted shade of the wood. One of them, a lavender creature with a spotted blue mane, glanced at her briefly before returning to his meal. Far to their left, a lone unicorn munched on a scraggly bush, a few fat leaves lanced through its corkscrew horn. Greta hoped silently that the unicorn was eating poison ivy, or maybe nightshade.
She sidled across the roof to where the great oak grew, its thick branches twining across the gray shake roof. Her jeans scuffed quietly as she scooched out on one big limb and climbed down the tree. When she hit the ground, she darted across the drive, pausing behind the rusty hulk of Gunther's old car to give the house one final glance.
She'd already said goodbye to Wendy, but she thought of sneaking around to the girl's bedroom window. Maybe peeking in to see Wendy reading a book, or coloring a picture, or looking at photos of the family and wishing she could be with Greta on her special day.
Or maybe not wishing, exactly.
Greta took a breath, ready to sprint across the yard, toward the wood, where she could disappear into a copse of gnarled oaks.
"Hey!" came the voice. "Hey, Greta! Greta!"
In the dark of the open front door stood Gunther, his yellow tee tucked sloppily into cut-off denim shorts.
She ran.
Greta tore along the path, beneath leaves scorched yellow by an undying sun, past another little cluster of ponies that didn't bother to look up at the fleeing girl. Somewhere behind was Gunther, pushing his long legs against the ground, probably gaining fast. She should have been quieter. Should have sketched out a better plan. Should have, should have. Really, this all came down to one doozy of a should-have, but right now all that mattered was not getting caught, not being forced back into that house, not being made to wish again. Because maybe this time, she could fix things. Not in the grown-up way, but for good.
Outrunning Gunther was not an option. She needed to get off the path and hide. The path wasn't even a path so much as a widish spot between scrawny jags of dying trees. There was little cover, but Greta found one big tuft of bush and dove into it. She burrowed deep, bramble stabbing at her bare arms, tracing angry red marks across her face. She reined in her breathing and tried to listen. She heard nothing. She waited.
A rustle of leaves caught her ears from somewhere off to her left and she turned her head slowly, trying not to lose an eye to an errant branch. Through a thatch of foliage she could just make out something brilliant and white. Not Gunther. A unicorn. She couldn't decide if this was better or worse.
She remembered the first one that had arrived, almost three years back. How excited little Sally had been: In the grass out back, Daddy! My wish came true! Later that day, though, the poor girl had found her dog, torn open and stiffening beside the tulip bed. The unicorn had been standing nonchalant in the shade of the old elm, it's horn tacky and red.
When the ponies had started to appear, first just normal ponies but then in rainbow colors and then in elaborate whorls and swoops of every hue, people had begun to wonder. With the arrival of the unicorns, they had begun to fear.
Stay away, thought Greta. Just stay over there and eat your stupid dead bushes.
It came from somewhere behind her, but Greta didn't dare move.
"Greta, you need to come back! It'll be okay this time!"
He was getting closer. She began to twist her body, angle her head, wrench her eyes sideward, slowly, so slowly. Mustn't let him hear.
Should have found a better bush. Should have run faster.
"It won't be like before, I promise! We spent two weeks on the wording this time! It has to work!"
If the adults had begun to fear with the appearance of the first unicorn, they had fallen into a slippery, black panic when the great sauropod appeared downtown, its legs like wrinkled gray telephone boxes, turning the grass to peat and the buildings to splinters. They'd started to crack down then, advising the children against birthday wishes. It's hard to advise a four year old, though. It's hard to convince a toddler of what might happen if his wish goes wrong.
She could smell him, his skin greasy with sweat. A thick, sour smell. Though not one of the adults was exactly a potpourri these days, not in the endless sun. Water was scarce. Baths were a luxury.
Gunther stood almost close enough to touch now, turning on his hairy white legs, calling her name. A fresh red welt traced a line above one knobby knee.
He took a step away. He took another step. A few more and he was out of sight, then he was out of earshot. Greta released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, then swiveled around, trying to find the least painful exit.
The unicorn's brilliant white face was twelve inches away. Empty black eyes glared from beneath the gossamer strands of its mane, beneath the golden jag of its horn. She could feel its breath, hot and wet, blasting against her cheeks in little puffs. It might ignore her or it might lick her or it might run her through. You could never tell with the unicorns. If it jabbed that wicked spire in there, she would go for its eyes. Maybe she could blind it, or at least stun it long enough to wriggle free and escape.
It blinked at her, snorted, and walked to its left until it found another brittle shrub to chew. When she decided it had definitively lost interest in her, she snaked her way through branches until she was free, then stepped quietly away.
The path carried Greta along the north edge of town. If she kept following it, she would wind up at what used to be the Old Green River, but was now just a sandy patch that wound through the woods like a discarded ribbon. Sun-bleached corpses littered the forest, deer and rabbits and birds, some bloated and stinking, some just dried mats of fur and bone. Heat blasted through the treetops; the shade seemed pathetic now. Should have brought a parasol, should have brought a portable fan.
Greta kept her eyes sharp for unicorns, for bears, for the little purple dragon her friend Wally had wished up a couple years back. At least that one hadn't breathed fire.
She almost wished she would run into something. When she was trapped beneath the bush, the terror had kept her mind occupied. The fear of Gunther, the fear of what today's wish might bring if the adults had their way. Now she had nothing to do but trudge on and think about the plan she had formed so long ago, but had only managed to act on so recently.
Maybe the tree wouldn't even be there. Maybe the crusty little thing that lived beneath had moved on, to other regions, to other worlds. It hadn't been there six months ago, when she had first realized what had to be done. But that day hadn't been her birthday, and as Greta now understood, birthdays were a special kind of magic. A kind only available to little children, and Greta wouldn't be a little child much longer. Now might be her last chance.
To her left, down through the foliage, she could make out the dilapidated backyard that belonged to the Reinhurst family. The Reinhursts sat in their rusting lawn swing, as they did most afternoons these days, their heads joined by a sickly twist of flesh and cartilage, their eyes blind and milky blue. They had been on the verge of divorce when their boy had celebrated his special day. As per his wish, Mommy and Daddy would now be together forever.
Up ahead, Greta saw the boulder that lay in the middle of the path like a giant's plaything, lost and forgotten. She reached it and turned leftward, northward, towards the old tree and towards what lay underneath.
When she reached the clearing after a few minutes' trek over bramble and bush, and having snuck like a midnight thief past a stout unicorn's glass-eyed stare, she found the oak tree again. A big, moss-covered thing that snaked its branches through the canopy above. Under a nest of roots as big around as her thigh, a hole led somewhere dark and secret. She stopped short and breathed deep once, twice, three times. With her heart in her throat, Greta inched forward.
"Hello, Greta."
She spun around. Gunther was stepping over a thick twist of roots, holding onto a tree trunk. One leg was ripped to tatters, the sock beneath crimson and sticky. Part of his shirt was missing. He grinned in a way she had never seen him grin before as he trundled, limping, closer and closer. The rotting branch he held in his hand looked as if it could fell an elk. He said, with his best pass at grownup congeniality:
"I think we should have a chat."
"Gunther, I'm sorry, just--"
"Shut your face, girl." He had never spoken to her like this. He wasn't her favorite person, but he had always been polite as he marched her upstairs, as he checked the attic for contraband, as he lowered the bar and clicked the padlock shut, all per the regulations. Even now, he spoke in a steady and matter-of-fact voice that scared her far more than would a wild-eyed rant. The branch waggled in his grip.
"Let me explain. Please."
"You know the rules, Greta. All children under 18 years of age. Are you under 18 years of age?"
"Of course, I..."
He shook his head. "And after we came up with the perfect wish. You want to fix all this, right?"
"It never works that way, Gunther! You know it! It always just makes it worse!"
"That's not fair, Greta." He sounded indignant now, which struck Greta as an improvement over that pristine courtesy. "We couldn't just let things keep going, could we? The monsters, everything going all, all..." He shook the branch as if he could beat the proper words from thin air. "All haywire? Could we? Greta? Could we?"
"Remember Jacob?"
Gunther was silent for a long time, motionless but for the slight twitch in his eyes. "We're more careful now," he said.
"No. I can fix this. You have to trust me."
"You're just a child, Greta. You don't understand."
"I understand perfectly!" she shouted. "Who do you think did all this in the first place?"
"What?" The branch slipped from his hand and thunked to the ground. "Did what?"
"I'm the one that started this, Gunther. But I can fix it. Just let me go for a few minutes...." She stepped backward.
"Don't move, girl." Something dark slipped into his eyes and he flashed a glance at the black space beneath the tree. "What do you have in there? You have cake in there? You slip yourself some candles?"
"No, gosh, no, it's... I can't explain. But there's no cake, I swear."
"You're going back with me now. You can go back on your feet or you can go back over my shoulder." He lifted his shoulders in a what-can-I-do shrug. "Your--"
The unicorn tore into the clearing. Maybe it had been creeping forward, inch by inch, or maybe it had been strolling forward, brazen and self-assured. You could never tell with the unicorns. Gunther managed to fling himself down and to the side, dodging a horn through his chest by a matter of inches. The beast's head still clocked him just below the armpit, and he did a lopsided pirouette as he went down.
The unicorn reared and threw itself around, its hooves thundering against the ground as it turned its eyes on Greta. She spun and launched herself at the base of the great oak, down the hole, into the darkness.
The hole was tighter than Greta remembered, but then she had been much smaller three years ago this day, when she had wandered into the forest after her birthday party wound down, seeking quiet and a little solitude.
Her wish hadn't come true.
They never had before, of course, but this time she was so earnest. She had made her wish and blown out the candles, every last one, and then she had glanced at Wendy, her eyes moist with hope, her mouth pressed into a tight little line. Wendy beamed back at her, and maybe her eyes seemed a little less cavernous. Maybe her tiny freckled face looked slightly less wan.
And then Wendy had launched into another coughing fit, this one turning her favorite white handkerchief a mottled scarlet.
Should have wished harder, should have been more earnest.
Greta emerged into a tiny sphere of empty space in which she could not quite stand upright. She strained her ears for the sounds of battle-fury above, or a hasty retreat, but the space beneath the tree might have been in another world.
Sticking out of the coarse dirt on the far wall, a drippy white candle cast a circle of jaundiced light. The wooden door beneath was closed.
As before, Greta summoned her nerve and stepped up to the door.
As before, she knocked.
When she heard the voice say "Come in," the words like something bubbling up through a pool of tar, Greta turned the tarnished brass knob and pushed. The door flew open, as if made of paper, and she was whisked forward on legs that no longer seemed her own. The thing stood in brown robes sewn together from a dozen tiny pelts, some of them still marked with the dim shapes of tiny woodland faces. Around her hung all manner of strange objects of alien purpose, jars filled with congealing muck, tools with cruel hooks and odd pointy bits, a big dimpled pot boiling above a flame that was entirely the wrong shade of purple.
"I remember you, sure I do." The voice came from somewhere inside a face carved of solid darkness, two tiny eyes glinting from beneath a flop of colorless hair that dusted against the floor. "You looked for me before, found me, asked of me. Begged of me, if'n I recall. 'I wish that birthday wishes came true,' that's what you said, if'n my memory still works as proper."
It coughed out something that might have been a laugh, and Greta thought of white linen stained red. She thought of the labored wheezing that had clattered through the house every day prior to that ninth birthday, and not once after she had returned from this place beneath the tree.
"I need you to fix this," she said.
"Oh does she?" Another chittering laugh. "She needs me to fix this, is that what I hear?" The thing lifted one arm and pointed at her with one rotting-twig finger. Its sleeve stared at her with a collapsed gray eye, smiled at her through half a muzzle. "I told you, didn't I?"
"Please," she said, cursing herself when it came out as a whine.
"I said that nothing good comes unearned, didn't I? Nothing proper comes without a price."
"Can you fix this?" asked Greta. "Everything is terrible now. The sun is killing everything. There's no food, no water." Greta shuddered. She wasn't sure she was even making words anymore, but the thing in the robes nodded its head.
"Spit it out, then. Say the words."
"I... I wish to make everything better. I wish for you to make... everyone happy again."
"You sure about what you're saying, girl?" The thing's face was made of black, but somehow it still managed to throw a glittering smile.
"Please," she whispered. Her head waggling side to side. "Don't make me say it, please."
"It's up to you. You know the words to make it right, if you can say 'em."
Should have never come, should have never come.
"I wish to take it all back," said Greta, barely audible. "I wish I'd never come here all those years ago."
The creature nodded once and said, as it had said once before:
"Your wish is granted."
It was clearly cooler when Greta dragged herself from the recess beneath the tree, the light from above a soft, filtered green. Somewhere distant, she heard the liquid babble of the Old Green River. She didn't look back as she shuffled her feet back to the main path, but she supposed if she had she might have seen a big empty space where the fat oak had stood only minutes ago.
There was no sign of Gunther as she made her way back. No unicorn. She did see --just barely, as the foliage had grown thick and lush--the Reinhurst couple on their lawn swing. Their heads were joined together, but this time in a kiss.
There were no cars in the driveway when she came in sight of her old yellow house, though a cluster of balloons hovered just above the mailbox. She thought of the pink balloon she had worn just a couple hours ago. HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY GRETA.
She knelt in grass that was cool and slightly overgrown. When Father, tidy in his weekend slacks and his pinstripe shirt and slickly parted hair, stepped outside the door and said, "Greta!" said, "Where on earth were you?" said, "We had to cancel the whole party, you know," Greta closed her eyes and wept.
Father's tone softened. "Are you okay? What happened?"
She didn't know the words. There was nothing to say. Until:
She opened her eyes. In the dark of the open front door, Wendy stood in a yellow polka-dot dress, her dark hair done up in a fancy plait.
"Wendy?" said Greta and stood up, and then she was running past her bewildered father, and then she was tearing open the screen door and sweeping her little sister into her arms. Wendy stumbled forward, healthy eyes wide with confusion, sucking unlabored breath into her lungs.
"Wendy," she repeated as the little girl pushed away from her crazy older sister. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "Are you... feeling okay?"
"Why are you being all weird?" asked Wendy.
From somewhere, maybe in her head or maybe on the wind, Greta heard that molasses voice one final time:
Now it's been earned.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 20th, 2013

Author Comments

I started this story as an attempt to write something that my nine-year-old daughter would enjoy reading. I failed somewhere along the way--the finished story would give her a week's worth of nightmares--but I'm getting closer.

My five-year-old son, though, would probably love this. He'd be rooting for the unicorn.

- Jeffrey John Hemenway
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