From the Vault

October 31, 2018

First, let’s set the scene.

It’s 1998. A drizzly Western Washington fall afternoon. My eighth grade creative writing teacher turns off the classroom lights, illuminates some battery-operated candles, and spends the whole class period reading to us out of an anthology of stories that horror writers wrote with their kids.

We were sent home with an assignment to write our own scary story. I had no idea what to write; I was 13, with such an overactive imagination that I had nightmares after reading Goosebumps books too close to bed.

I really wanted to write a story about a unicorn. So I did.

After all, why couldn’t a unicorn be the villain of a scary story?

“To Have a Horn” was the first story I wrote outside of my comfort zone. It was also the first short story that I stuck with and edited over and over. I showed it to other teachers for critiques. After working with my ninth grade English teacher to refine it, she suggested I enter it in the Scholastic Writing Awards.

It was my only submission, and I didn’t expect anything to come of it. But it won at the regional level and was sent to the national competition, where it earned me my first writing credit: a National Gold Award for the year 2000.

Do I cringe as I read it today? Um, yes, absolutely. But I’ve resisted the urge to edit; this is the story as I submitted it to the Scholastic Writing Awards.

Plus, I still love the idea of a spooky stalker unicorn.

Happy Halloween!

To Have a Horn

The unicorn lay in wait.

Her sleek body, covered with fur that had once been whiter than snow, now inlaid with dirt and grime, was stretched across a small, dirty patch of moss near the outskirts of a huge forest somewhere in northern Kentucky. Her small, delicate hooves were folded underneath her body, making her stance something like a crouch. Her purple bloodshot eyes surveyed the scene below; a large house and red barn nestled against acres of fenced pastureland.

The unicorn lay in wait.

A fly landed on the stub of what once had been a magnificent horn in the middle of her forehead. She shook her head, the matted hair of her once silver mane flying. She flung up her tail, knotted with branches, leaves, briars and other unspeakable items. Dirty silver met dirty silver, almost becoming tangled before she was able to jerk her long tail back down. Having her tail so tangled in her mane that she couldn’t get it down would completely destroy the tiny amount of dignity she had managed to preserve through all of her ordeals.

The unicorn lay in wait.

She didn’t know what she was waiting for, and she didn’t even try to come to possible conclusions, like any sane unicorn would, in her half-crazed mind. She wasn’t born crazy. She was born with the name of Targony in the unicorn world of Loth. By the time she was an adult, she had become the Ambassador to Other Worlds for the Queen, Aragornia. She had been one of the most prestigious beasts in all of the Other Worlds. Everywhere her demands were met and she was respected.

Until the day came that word was sent to the Palace that Chimeras had let a Hunter into Loth. The only goal Hunters seem to have in life was to kill as many unicorns as possible. Targony had gone, out of her own will, to find and kill this Hunter to protect her Queen. The Hunter had found her. He had stood in front of a tree as she charged at him, her horn bent towards his heart. Despite her valiant efforts, the Hunter had tricked her. He’d stepped aside as she charged, and she had been unable to stop. Her horn had become embedded in the thick bark of the tree, and when she jerked her head up, trying to free her horn, the delicate bone had broken, leaving her with only a stump where her magnificent horn had been. She had killed the hunter with that stub of a horn. His blood had seeped into the open bone, causing her mind to become muddled. No longer able to think clearly, and not wanting to be the laughing stock of all the Worlds, Targony had left Loth. She came to Earth, the human world. The only thing she could think of was her horn. She would’ve done anything to get it back. She didn’t look back as she passed into Earth. If she had, she might have seen the rest of her horn, lying in the middle of the broad green valley which was threshold of the Worlds.

The unicorn lay in wait.

The tardy bell for seventh period rang throughout the small school. The halls were deserted, except for a tall, amber-haired girl whose face looked like a skeleton’s skull. It had looked like that ever since her father’s death from cancer three months before. This day her eyes looked even more like the empty eye sockets of a skull than usual, for she had been crying during her sixth period class and still was. They had watched a movie, which was normally no reason for anyone to cry. She could still hear her best friend’s voice echoing in her ears; ‘“Come on, Arial! It’s a movie, for goodness sake! It’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’! It’’’s a classic! A Disney, for crying out loud! Why on Earth are you crying?”

“It’s so happy!” Arial had replied. “Always a happy ending, Hannah. Happy endings don’t exist in real life!”’

Hannah had tossed her orange hair over her shoulder, about to reply, when Arial’s worst enemy, Blythe Von, had showed up. She seemed to be attracted to Arial’s tears, and loved to tease her about her father’s untimely death. He had been a celebrated photographer, and his death took the attention from Blythe, a singer destined for stardom who believed she should get all the attention because of her talent. Blythe, as usual, had made a snide comment to Arial as she left class. Luckily, she was a T.A. seventh period, and the teacher she assisted let her go home early. She didn’t think she would have been able to make it through the last hour of the day.

Once clear of the halls, Arial ran to the hitching post, tears still running down her cheeks. Since the town she lived in, located in northern Kentucky, didn’t even have a name although over 4,000 people lived in rural farms around it, the school district was very poor and couldn’t afford to buy school buses. Anyone who had a horse rode it to school. If they didn’t, they had to be picked up and dropped off, unless they lived close enough to walk. She was actually glad she’d been late to class that morning after a visit to her father’s grave; she hadn’t had time to unsaddle her horse, which would make this a clean, quick escape.

She’d ridden Midnight, her father’s stallion, instead of Sundrop, her own horse, who had just delivered her foal the past night. She untied Midnight from the hitching post and led him well away from the other horses. Then she jumped into the saddle, turned the horse towards the road, and galloped off.

The cold November air struck Arial full in the face in the form of wind, practically freezing the tears on her cheeks during her four mile ride home. Blythe’s words had hit her like a whip. “Your Father never loved you,” she had said. Even Midnight cried tears of exhaustion in the form of sweat, which Arial seemed not to notice. White specks of perspiration flew off his body.

When they finally reached home, Arial unsaddled Midnight and turned him loose in a corral. She knew he really needed a long, cooling walk after his extensive gallop, but she was too upset to do it now. She would have gone into the comforting red barn and sat in her mare’s stall, but at the moment it seemed almost hostile. Instead, Arial ran to the house. She dropped her backpack inside the door after opening it with her key and clumped up the stairs, still sobbing. She ran into her bedroom on the second floor and collapsed onto her waterbed. Posters of unicorns lined her walls, but offered her no comfort.

She slipped a hand under her pillow, feeling the solid, comforting oak box her father had given to her before he died, oblivious of the sound of a car pulling into the gravel driveway. Arial sat up slightly and drew the box out. Looking at its contents always calmed her. As she undid the cache, a door slammed downstairs. She jumped, and shoved the box back under her pillow.

“Arial? Is that you?”

Arial quickly wiped away her tears and ran downstairs into her mothers’ arms.

“Oh, Arial. Was it Blythe again?” Melanie Savior asked her daughter.

Arial nodded wordlessly.

Melanie sighed. “Arial, you have to stop leaving school early! This is the tenth time this year, and school just started last month.”

“I don’t care, Mom! I can’t stand it when people make fun of Dad!”

“I know, I know. I was supposed to be in a meeting with my publisher right now, but he said something about your father and I told him off.”

Melanie had been a successful poet before her husband’s death, when her work nearly came to a standstill. She smiled sadly and pushed her daughter out of the house. “Go see your horse!”

Arial walked down the huge center aisle, the barn cats close on her heels. The horses were kept in the center stalls, the cows to the right and the feed and equipment to the left.

As she walked, Arial patted the noses of inquisitive horses. One by one, the cats jumped into selected horses’ stalls. Only one, Areia, continued walking with Arial down to the end of the aisle and the huge box stalls.

They both stopped in front of Sundrop’s stall. She had been moved into the larger stall so she and her foal could have more room. The beautiful five year-old mare was dozing on her feet, standing over her foal. She woke up instantly as Arial opened the stall door and walked in with Areia close behind her. Sundrop snorted as Areia jumped to a perch on her back and laid down, purring. The horses and their cat companions were inseparable, leaving each other only to eat, and, in the cats’ cases, to greet whoever walked into the barn.

Arial hugged her horse, then knelt and ran her hand along the foal’s back. The tiny baby woke up and struggled onto her feet, leaning into Arial’s caress. Just like her mother, the tiny horse had the trademark gold coat of a Palomino, with a silver mane and tail. The foal, with the short attention span of a very young child, soon lost interest in the back rub and began nursing. Arial grinned, feeling better. She hugged her mare again, then returned to the house.

Arial woke up suddenly. She rolled over, glancing at her alarm clock. Three o’clock in the morning. Sighing, she rolled out of bed and padded over to the window in her long nightshirt. It was raining, though there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky when the sun had set. She hated this type of rain, not because of the wetness, but because of the mist it brought with it. She couldn’t even see the barn or the forest beyond it because of the moisture falling from the sky.

Arial shivered and sat down on her bed. Once more, she drew out the oblong oak box and tugged the cache open gently. Carefully, she drew back the top and pulled out its contents.

It was a long, spiraling horn. At the bottom were sharp, jagged edges that made it seem like it had been torn off at its roots. Arial’s father had given it to her, but he never told her exactly what it was. Part of her believed it was a unicorn’s horn, but the more sensible part of her mind told her it was just a Narwhal’s horn.

Arial knew that now she was awake, she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Putting the horn in its box once more and placing it on the bed behind her, she dressed quickly, pulling a raincoat on over her clothes. Arial grasped the box, making sure the cache was closed, and dropped it into one of the deep pockets of her coat.

She tiptoed downstairs, opening the door silently and easing it closed. Her mother always locked the door, but even when it was locked you could open it from the inside. It was only when the door clicked shut that Arial realized she’d forgotten her house key.

She leapt down the two stairs that led from the front porch to the ground, thinking she’d go check on Sundrop. Suddenly, Arial heard a horse’s scream coming from the direction of the barn. She ran towards it, her heart pounding and her hands becoming sweaty. Seconds later, she threw her weight desperately against the barn door. It didn’t budge. She kicked it hard, making a resounding echo. Turning, she saw the light go on in her mother’s bedroom. Some unknown instinct warned her not to be seen. She ran blindly. Finding herself near the corrals and pastures, she heard another unearthly horse scream from near by.

It was then that she realized they were coming from the pasture, not the barn. Instantly she remembered Midnight. She’d forgotten to put him back in the barn! She ran her hand along the wall until she found what she’d been looking for; a large metal box screwed into the barn wall. She opened it by feel, reached inside and pulled out a heavy-duty diver’s flashlight. Switching it on, Arial combed the pastures with it.

“Midnight?” she whispered into the darkness. She saw movement and swung the light towards it. It was a horse, laying on its side. Praying he was only sleeping, Arial hopped the fence and walked toward Midnight, her flashlight shining on the stallion. The light showed a pool of liquid...blood...around the horse.

Arial gasped, examining the large puncture wound in his side. His legs were twitching and his mouth foamed. He let out one more shriek, then lay still. Ariel looked up, tears misting her eyes for the third time in less than 24 hours. She trained the light away from the dead horse, towards the back of the pasture, wondering what had killed him.

There! She saw something. It was a large white animal, resembling a horse but much too slender to be one. When it saw Arial, it ran off towards the forest. Arial began to walk, like one in a trance. At first she didn’t know where she was going. Soon though, she noticed she was headed towards the forest, subconsciously pursuing the animal that had killed her father’s horse.

Even though she had lived in this same house all her life and often explored in the forest, she was still spooked by it in the rain. As she walked among the massive trees, their branches clawed at her and icy tendrils of mist lunged at her from all sides. She shivered and pulled her coat closer around her body. She took the oak box out of her pocket and withdrew the horn for comfort.

Stopping for a moment, Arial shined the flashlight around to get her bearings. The light dimmed, then all together flicked out. She shook her head in astonishment.

“No!” she whispered. “Not now!”

The horn began to glow. She gaped down at it, amazed. She wished suddenly for the stupid mist to go away, with all of its eerie shapes and noises. That way, she could just worry about the glowing horn she held in her hands.

The mist receded. Arial couldn’t believe her eyes, racking her brain for a logical explanation. She must be imagining that the mist was moving because she was wishing so hard for it to do so. Or she was just dreaming...or going crazy.....or the mist made her imagination play tricks on her...or maybe, just maybe, the horn really did have powers---magic. She held the horn above her head, laughing giddily. No longer was there any doubt in her mind as to what it was. This was a unicorn horn.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement. Quickly, she stuffed the horn back in its box, shutting the lid and drawing the cache. Then, slowly, Arial turned to her right, where she had seen the movement.

She faced a large white animal that resembled a horse...the same that had killed Midnight. If Arial had been a dog, she would have growled; a horse, she would have shrieked in terror. It had a white coat, speckled with dirt, and a tangled silver mane and tail. On its forehead, a spiraled stub sprang up. If it had been longer, Arial could have sworn it was a unicorn’s horn. The top of it was jagged, as if the point had been torn off. Just like her horn, safe in its box, but reversed. The animal’s purple eyes glinted with an insane light.

She took a step forward. The animal was a unicorn. But, unlike so many myths, it had neither feathers behind its delicate hooves nor a beard under its chin. Even with its stub of a horn, it was an impressive animal.

Arial walked closer to the mythical beast, her eyes on it and not on the ground. She loved unicorns more than any other animal known to mankind, but vengeance was the only thing on her mind. She didn’t notice the root that tangled around her foot.

The unicorn eyed the box that Arial still held in her hand and advanced slowly on the girl. Arial stood her ground. The unicorn lowered its head, the remnant of its horn pointed at Arial’s chest. The unicorn came a few paces closer. Arial stepped backwards. She wasn’t afraid. She had a full horn, and its powers, in her hand. She would get her revenge on this animal, even if it was a unicorn. The thought of vengeance overpowered her mind, causing her thoughts to become muddled. In what seemed like a second, the unicorn was trotting. Arial ran slowly backwards, keeping the same distance between herself and the unicorn.

The root that had caught her foot before now jerked her leg out from under her, and she crashed down, landing on her back. The oak box flew out of her hand and landed in a nearby bush.

The unicorn continued forward, its hind hoof striking Arial full on the head. Darkness engulfed her.

The unicorn, Targony, lay in wait.

Her sleek body, covered with fur that had once been whiter than snow, now inlaid with dirt and grime, was stretched across a small, dirty patch of moss near the outskirts of a huge forest somewhere in northern Kentucky. Her small, delicate hooves were folded underneath her body, making her stance something like a crouch.

The unicorn lay in wait.

She could smell blood on the air, and distantly thought it could be from the human-child’s head. She didn’t care if the human was dead or alive. She’d gotten what she wanted: its box. She’d seen the horn it had held up so foolishly...her horn. But the cache was too complicated for her stub to open.

The unicorn lay in wait. Waiting for another human, that full-grown one from the house by the barn, to come looking for the girl-child. Then, she would force it to open the box.

The unicorn lay in wait.

A Meditation on Maps 👈 Previous