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Highway Unicorn

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Nathalie poked her head into game room. "Sidney, could you take the trash out, please?" Alexa shot Sidney the smug grin of someone who has gotten out of an assigned task, and Sidney sighed heavily for her benefit as he headed to the kitchen. He didn't really mind, though; he wasn't lie-in-bed-all-day hurt anymore, but he was still in the vague haze of pain medication and recovery, and it was just nice to have something useful to do. He shoved his feet into his Crocs, grabbed the trash, and headed out the back door.

He noticed first that the trashcan had fallen over. Then he noticed the animal eating the trash - dog, he thought, but it was too big, the wrong shape. Horse, he realized a second later. Or a pony, actually, because it was a really small horse.

And then he saw the horn poking out from the pony's head, golden and straight and somehow delicate-looking despite the empty tuna can hanging off of it. The unicorn horn. "The fuck," Sidney said out loud, his eye skipping from the horn over the greyish-white body to the graceful gold-toned hooves.

The unicorn looked up and directly at him. Sidney blinked at it, frozen with the trash bag still in his hand. They locked eyes for a long moment. Then the unicorn went back to - ew. Licking the melted leftover ice cream out of a carton of vanilla, the carton Sidney'd finished the night before while wishing desperately it was a steak.

"Hey," Sidney said. "That's disgusting. Don't do that." I'm talking to a unicorn, he realized, and maybe it was all the painkillers he was on, but the fact just arrived in his mind and sat there heavily while he tried to figure out how to react.

"Am I hallucinating?" he finally asked. Although possibly asking a figment of his imagination wasn't the right way to go, here.

The unicorn gave him a look. A really seriously judgmental look, way too judgmental for anyone eating gross ice cream out of the trash.

Sidney dropped the trash bag near the garbage can and went back to the house. He was almost at the door when he realized he couldn't do that, and he turned around to clean up the mess.

No unicorn.

Fuck.

~

Sidney spent a few hours making justifications to himself - he was two weeks out from the broken jaw and he'd had not one concussion symptom. He was fine. He'd probably just seen a dog. He was on a lot of medication, and he was not getting a whole lot of quality sleep, and sometimes that made you see weird stuff. And, anyway, one single instance of seeing something obviously impossible did not really qualify as hallucinations.

Still. The next night, after dinner, he said, enunciating as carefully as he could around his broken teeth, "I'm going for a walk." And he did, making sure to pass by the trash cans on his way out.

Nothing. No - no dog or anything. Sidney sighed in relief and started a brisk walk up the street.

He didn't see the unicorn until he was on his way back. This time, it was nosing through the Strakas' trash; as Sidney watched, it ripped into a heavy plastic garbage bag with its teeth, then used its hooves to open the bag wider. It pulled out a carton of chocolate ice cream and began licking.

Sidney flinched. Chocolate was poisonous to dogs; what if it was poisonous to unicorns? Resisting the urge to smack himself for having thought that, he stepped forward and said, "Hey. Don't eat that."

The unicorn looked up at him. Sidney could swear it rolled its eyes. Then it whickered a little.

"It might be poisonous for you," Sidney said defensively. Then he went on the attack. "Anyway, you're a horse. Shouldn't you be eating grass?"

The unicorn whinnied again and went back to the carton. Sidney stood there, trying to figure out if he was willing to go take the carton away from a creature with a very pointy horn on its head. Then he realized he was talking about an imaginary creature, shook his head, and walked back into the house.

He spent most of the night floating in an opiate-induced haze, unable to think about the unicorn with any kind of reason, equally unable to stop thinking about it entirely and go to sleep. It had seemed so real. But it couldn't be.

In the morning, he called the doctor. Maybe this was all just a side effect.

~

The conversation with Dr. Harner was painfully awkward and entirely inconclusive. "I'm seeing unicorns," Sidney told him.

"Huh," Dr. Harner said, sounding determinedly calm. "All the time? Is there a unicorn here right now?"

"No," Sidney said, exasperated. "I - I guess it's really only one unicorn. I've seen it twice, out by Mario's house. Pawing through the trash."

"I see," Dr. Harner said. The next ten minutes contained a lot of discussion of stress and pain medication and tricks of the eyes, all of which was utterly unhelpful. Sidney knew what he'd seen. He trusted his eyes. His brain might not function too well at times, but his eyes were great. But in the end - well. Dr. Harner asked him to keep a diary of any further sightings and to check back in next week.

Sidney thanked him before he left, but he didn't mean it.

~

The time out wore on. Sidney was watching a great team on paper not really come together on the ice, and he couldn't get out there and help. He spent a lot of time carefully reminding himself not to grit his teeth, not to tense his jaw. Not to yell at anyone. He watched practices and made notes and tried to avoid getting his hopes up before his visits to various doctors, who never said what he needed them to.

He also saw the unicorn again. Each time he carefully recorded it in his unicorn-watching diary, even though he knew he'd never show Dr. Harner his entries.

April 18 - 9:30 p.m.

Saw unicorn kicking over trashcans on Academy while I was coming back from the store.

He was carrying a bottle of chocolate milk, which he'd bought as a substitute for what he really wanted, and drinking another one as he walked.

The unicorn came trotting up as soon as he turned onto Mario's block. Sidney flinched away a little, and it responding with a sound remarkably like a snicker.

"I'm not talking to you," he said firmly. This seemed like the right way to deal with things, although possibly that was the Percocet talking.

The unicorn rolled its eyes and nosed interestedly at the bottle of chocolate milk.

"It's milk," Sidney said. "It's not for unicorns." The unicorn nosed harder and made a soft neighing sound.

"How would you even drink it?" The unicorn licked the bottle hopefully.

Sidney gave in. He managed to sort of pour the bottle into her mouth, although a lot leaked out the sides. He left her licking at a patch of spilled chocolate milk and headed back home, where he drank his other bottle standing up in the kitchen.

He was still worried that chocolate might be bad for unicorns. He was less worried that he was hallucinating, though; hallucinations didn't have hot breath and a weird rough tongue and really a lot more spit than you'd ever associate with such a supposedly saintly mythological creature.

When he finished the bottle, he reminded himself of what his father had always said. "It's not important," Sidney said out loud in the empty kitchen. "It's not hockey." He needed to work through this: get his jaw healed, get his conditioning back, get out on the ice. Unicorns weren't important. He'd learned to ignore a lot. He could ignore this.

April 23 - 2:00 a.m.

Unicorn ran down the street when I looked out the window.

He didn't actually write down the rest of the encounter, because it was - kind of embarrassing. Sidney was mostly up because he was hungry, was the problem. He found himself wandering around the house late at night, yearning for real food to eat, fantasizing helplessly about cheese and bacon and toffee. That was probably why he opened the drawer as soon as he saw the unicorn.

A few days after the broken jaw, Sidney had buried all his candy at the bottom of a drawer where he wouldn't be able to see it. Now he pulled some out - chocolate, mostly, but he included red licorice as a potentially better-for-unicorns option - and headed downstairs.

He felt like an idiot, standing on the street with candy in his hand, but he only had to wait about five minutes for the unicorn to appear. He - she? - stood about five feet away, regarding Sidney with a jaded expression.

"I thought you might be hungry," Sidney said, trying not to feel ridiculous. "I brought you candy." He held out his hands to show the unicorn the options.

The unicorn came forward and nosed at Sidney's hands twice before settling its muzzle on the peanut butter cups.

"Yeah, I like those a lot, too," Sidney said, and unwrapped them. The unicorn ate both of them, one bite each; the second time, it also got the paper wrapper.

Sidney went back to the house feeling less hungry, somehow.

April 26 - 11:00 p.m.

Unicorn stood under my window and neighed loudly.

The neighing hadn't bothered anyone else, of course - only Sidney could see the stupid unicorn, and even the dogs were entirely unbothered by its presence - but he'd known it would keep him awake. So it made sense to grab some peanut butter cups from the supply he'd laid in and head downstairs.

"How did you even get in?" Sidney said, rubbing between the unicorn's ears and playing with its floppy mane. "There's a gate for a reason."

The unicorn rolled its eyes and whinnied, nosing at Sidney's pocket where he had the peanut butter cups.

"I brought you an apple, too," Sidney said, pulling it out. "Horses like apples."

The unicorn made a derisive snorting noise and went back to snorfling at the pocket with the candy in it. Sidney found himself in the awkward position of negotiating with a unicorn. "Eat the apple and you can have four peanut butter cups," Sidney said.

The unicorn tried to get its nose into the pocket of Sidney's hoodie. And failed.

"Just try it," Sidney said, holding the apple out. "I swear Wikipedia said horses like these."

The unicorn gently prodded Sidney with its horn, ears laid back a little, and Sidney got the message. "I know you're not a horse. The Wikipedia article on unicorns really wasn't helpful." Sidney winced, thinking about the page's horrifying mention of the Throne Chair of Denmark. "Come on, just try it."

The unicorn sighed heavily, covering Sidney's hoodie in unicorn spit, and then took the apple and crunched through it grimly. Then it looked at Sidney, and he could kind of see it going: I tried it. Now give me the candy.

Sidney gave it the candy. "I wish I knew your name," he said.

The unicorn chomped solidly through a peanut butter cup.

"Maybe I should call you Candy," Sidney said. The unicorn whinnied. It sounded a lot like laughing. Sidney grinned back at her, and reached to rub some of the mud or whatever it was off her shoulder.

She was really filthy, actually. But she was still good company.

April 27 - 12:30 a.m.

Found unicorn wandering the street. Lured to sidewalk, gave her some food.

Sidney was feeling a little shaky - they'd won against the Hurricanes and they were destined for the playoffs, but he hadn't played for a month and didn't know when he'd be able to start - so he went looking for Candy as soon as everyone else was asleep.

He found her down the block, standing in the middle of the street, looking sweaty and shaking. Her eyes were so wide Sidney could see the whites, and her head was up, nostrils flared.

"Hey, what's the matter?" Sidney asked, forgetting to look around to make sure no one could see him talking to thin air.

Well. It was a quiet neighborhood, so it would probably be all right.

Sidney tried to get Candy back to the sidewalk, but she shook her head and neighed. He didn't hesitate, going right for the peanut butter cups. She didn't want to follow him back to the sidewalk, that was clear, but he knew her weakness by now.

Eventually, he got her settled down and led her back up the street toward Mario's house. When they got across from the Steinbergs' place, she stopped dead. And then their dogs started barking.

Which was - weird. None of the other dogs had any problems with Candy. Just to be sure, Sidney walked over across the street; as usual, both dogs bounded up to the gate to poke their noses through for petting. They didn't bark at Sidney.

But they barked at Sidney leading Candy past them. Huh.

The feeling of relief was intense, because - okay, Mario's dogs couldn't see Candy. The Strakas' dogs couldn't see Candy. The Berkshires' dogs couldn't see Candy. But these dogs could. Which meant Sidney wasn't alone in seeing the unicorn anymore.

Candy was almost definitely real.

Sidney celebrated by giving her a Snickers, too, and scratching her mane and all down along her back. She seemed to like it best right between her shoulder blades, so he focused there until she was limp and relaxed looking.

"Hey," Sidney said to her quietly. "You're real."

She looked singularly unimpressed by the news.

April 29 - 8:30 p.m.

Saw unicorn.

Sidney's order came, so he waited until everyone else had left the house to go for dinner somewhere with ribs and steak and chicken and - well, obviously Sidney wasn't going. Instead, he went down with his new box of brushes and a really large supply of peanut butter cups and Snickers and even some almond roca.

Candy came trotting up, nickering, as soon as he entered the yard. He tried to be sort of subtle about hooking up the hose, but she snorted warily as soon as he touched it.

"You're dirty," Sidney told her. "You need to be washed."

Candy snorted again, ears flat back.

"Look, I bought you brushes." He held up the bag with the grooming kit. She still didn't seem impressed, so he added, "And I give a lot more candy to unicorns that are clean."

Candy made a kind of loud sighing noise and snorted out about a bucket of horse snot onto Sidney's leg.

"Yuck," Sidney said. "I definitely only give gross unicorns candy after they're clean."

Candy gave him a flat, level look, but she held still while Sidney washed her, and shampooed her, and washed her again; shampooing really didn't seem like the most efficient way to get this job done. He dried her off, after, and then brushed out her coat and mane and tail. When he was done, she actually seemed to glow. The moon was out, and full, and it was like she was reflecting its rays. Almost like she radiated a soft white light of her own. She was painfully beautiful.

"You're a really pretty unicorn," Sidney told her honestly.

Candy rolled her eyes and nosed pointedly at his bag of treats.

"Yeah, yeah," Sidney said, unwrapping briskly. "You like me because I'm your chocolate supplier."

Candy neighed loudly. When Sidney looked up, she butted him gently with the side of her head, then pushed her nose against him and slobbered all over his shirt. "Ew," Sidney said again, even though this time he was a little touched. Candy leaned her whole body against Sidney's, hard, and went back to inhaling peanut butter cups.