01 Feb I Found a Deformed Unicorn in the Sewers
I first met the Unicorn while I was being hunted.
I plunged my bike down into a rocky drainage ditch, slammed on the brakes, and threw myself behind a large bush. I heard the remorseless grumble of the black pickup truck slowly inch by. They were looking for me, Boy Gosset and his brother Clint. Ever since they told me they were going to kick my ass after class, I knew they’d be coming for me. As soon as the end of day bell rang, I made a beeline for my bike and took off like a rocket.
Facedown in a drainage ditch, I could hear the tire crunch of gravel above me; I imagined them scanning the bushes like predatory birds looking for a mouse. They hadn’t seen where I went, otherwise they’d be down here in the ditch, hootin’ and hollerin’ about the pounding I was about to receive.
Their engine flared and sputtered a complaint. I heard the truck drive away until it was a barely audible hum in the distance. I tried to breathe a sigh of relief but I was too busy hyperventilating. I remained unmoving in the dirt.
With the truck gone, an uncanny peace prevailed. There was no wind, no traffic, no noise beyond my own labored breathing.
But I heard something. Somewhere in this undisturbed silence I thought I could hear crying.
Beside me a moss covered culvert peered out of the ground; I stuck my head inside and the crying was louder. There was enough room for me to enter, so I ducked my head, brushed aside a curtain of hanging foliage, and entered.
The tunnel led into darkness. I turned on my cell phone flashlight and carefully inched my way through the muck. The deeper I went, the more the crying took on a surreal musical quality. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before: it expressed an intense sadness blended with a mystique of innocence.
The tunnel opened up into an underground grotto that was illuminated by a thin crack in the ceiling. It was cool and damp inside and I could hear the steady drip of water.
Inside, propped up against a brick wall, I found a young girl of around eight years old.
“Hello? Is someone in here?” I asked, my voice wavering.
Even in the dim light I could observe the girl’s unusual constitution. She had a youthful, innocent face, unkempt silvery-blonde hair and bluish-white eyes. She wore an oversized t-shirt that covered much of her body and at first I thought she was just a torso and a head. But then I looked closer, and saw her arms and legs were deformed, misshapen flaps of skin. Her child-sized body was rimmed with undersized caricatures of real limbs; she could never walk with those feet or pickup with those hands. I wasn’t even sure how she held herself up.
Most striking of all was the growth of a single, rigid six-inch long cutaneous horn. It was reflective silver and looked sharp as a dagger. It didn’t appear to weigh her head down at all. It was grotesque, disturbing yet beautiful.
And then she spoke to me: “Hello Mathew. I’ve been waiting a long time to see you.” She had the voice of an exhausted child, and her words hinted at a German accent.
“Ho-how do you know my name?” I stammered. “Are you ok? Are you hurt? What are you doing down here?”
“I am so tired,” she said, straining on every word. “Please, I need your help.”
“Sure, anything! Just tell me what I can do. I can call an ambulance, or the police. . .”
“No! You cannot tell anyone that I am here,” she pleaded, abruptly agitated. “Please, I must be a secret. If you tell anyone about me, my world collapses. You must promise not to tell anyone!” She started rocking and I thought she would topple over.
“Yes, of course, I promise!” I said. “Whatever you need, I’ll get it for you.”
“Thank you. I always knew you would be my guardian. I haven’t eaten in so long. I am so hungry. Please, bring me uncooked chicken wings. If you do this, I will make everything better.”
“Chicken wings? I can do that. I’ll go get them right now! I’ll be super quick as long as I don’t see. . .” I trailed off remembering the brothers and their abominable black pickup.
“The Gossets will not trouble you today,” she said. “I can feel their rage; after what you did to them, their anger burns bright like a beacon.”
“Wait, how do you know about the Gossets? And why are you down here? Who are you? Are you German?” I had a million questions and I blurted them out in a machine-gunned jumble. Most of all I wanted to ask about the horn and deformities, but I was afraid to ask.
“Please, bring me the chicken wings, and I will answer your questions.”
“At least tell me your name! You know mine, it’s only fair.” I crossed my arms like I meant it.
“My name is Leben,” she said. “Lebensunwertes Leben, but please, never, ever call me my full name.”
“That is a very pretty name. Okay Leben, I will be back! Don’t go anywhere!”
I left the underground chamber, brushed off my bike and peddled for town. Even though she assured me the Gossets wouldn’t bother me, I still kept a wary eye open for them.
The Gossets may be the worst two people on the planet. They’ve tormented me daily for years, from elementary school teasing to high school beatings. I can’t count the varieties of torture they’ve put me through. I have always been an easy victim, passive, never willing to stand my ground. I apologized when they hurt their fists punching me and my weakness only emboldened them.
But then I went and took matters into my own hands.
I wanted to do something meaningful that would leave deep scars that refused to heal; I wanted full scale revenge, destruction of everything they held dear; I wanted to revisit every humiliating indignity they put me through.
However, instead of total war I settled for small scale vandalism: I used my house key to scratch “FUCK THE GOSSETS” onto the driver side door of their black pickup truck. I knew this would hurt; their truck was their pride and joy. I may as well have scratched it on their mother’s forehead.
I knew why they were coming after me and I didn’t want to contemplate what they’d do if they found me; I took backroads and kept my eyes peeled the whole trip to the grocery store.
I locked up my bike outside of the grocery store, bought a family size pack of raw chicken wings, and packed them into my bike’s saddle bag. I made a quick detour back home to pick up a soft blanket. I biked back to the girl with the supplies in tow.
I found the culvert, sloshed through the muddy tunnel, and re-entered the grotto. Leben was there, still perched against the damp brick wall.
“I got your chicken wings!” I said and saw her face light up. “How do you want me to cook them? I’ve never made them before but I’m sure I can figure it out. I guess I should have cooked them when I grabbed the blanket. Oh yeah, I brought you a blanket!” I felt like I was talking a mile a minute.
“Thank you, but no. They must be raw. Also. . .” she hesitated, looking embarrassed. “I cannot feed myself without your help.”
“You want me to feed you raw chicken wings?”
“But won’t you get sick? I hear salmonella is real nasty. You’ll be throwing up for days!”
“No, I will be fine. My mother used to feed them to me a long time ago.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you say so. . .” I put the first slimy wing up to her mouth and was shocked by how quickly she devoured the morsel. It’s like the meat was vacuumed up; she rapidly ingested the whole wing, bone and all. I did my best to hold back gagging. Soon the only thing left in the styrofoam container was the wet residue of chicken blood.
I waited for her to finish her last gulp before I spoke: “Leben, will you answer some questions now?”
She grimaced. “I’m sorry, Matthew, but I’m so tired. So weary.” Her eyes fluttered and her already weak voice began to taper off. “I haven’t eaten in a long time. I need time to regain my strength. Please, come back tomorrow and I will tell you everything. I promise.”
“Okay,” I said, more than a little disappointed. “I have school, so I’ll be back in the afternoon.”
Her fatigue was replaced with abrupt seriousness: “Listen to me. You did not find me by accident. I have a warning and you must listen very carefully. Tomorrow the Gossets will find you and they will hurt you. They will hurt you badly. You cannot—must not—hide from them. You will think hiding will postpone the pain, but you need to face it head on. When you hurt the most, do not seek the aid of others: come back to me. Only I can help you.”
“Okay, that doesn’t sound good. I’ll be back tomorrow, but you gotta start answering questions! I don’t feel right leaving a kid down here alone in the sewer.” I carefully wrapped the blanket around her; she’s so small that the blanket enveloped her.
Before leaving I turned around and saw she was already drifting off to sleep. I asked, “Can you tell me just one thing? What are you?”
“I’m a Unicorn,” she said.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. My mind was awash with dread and adrenaline fed anxiety. If Leben was right, then the Gossets were going to hurt me. Worse than ever. I’ve been bruised and beat up before, but this sounded like a whole new level of awful.
But what if she was wrong? Could I trust her? She knew things that she shouldn’t have known. She was stuck in the grotto, yet she knew my name, she knew about the Gossets, and she knew I did something that would direct their rage against me. I sensed that there was something innately magical about her, but it was an elusive feeling I couldn’t pinpoint. She kept turning over in my mind: I didn’t know whether she was a deformed innocent child, or a monster dwelling in the sewers. She said she was a unicorn. But unicorns aren’t real, and they have four legs, not malformed flippers.
I should have called the police, sent someone to help her, but she was so insistent that I didn’t. And I promised.
The next morning I commenced my death march to school. The bell rang as I arrived. Dominating the parking lot was the Gosset’s big black pickup truck. It looked like someone had taken a sander to the driver’s side door; it was all scratched up, but my message was no longer legible. I swallowed hard and went to class.
It was lunchtime and I was in the hallway next to my locker when I first saw them. There was a palpable tension in the air and no one met my eyes; they all knew an unspeakable cruelty was about to play out. When the Gossets appeared, everyone hastily cleared out.
They had the physiques of football players gone to seed; both wore coarse denim jackets and their guts hung over ostentatious belt buckles. The only way to tell them apart was that Boy Gosset wore a large cowboy hat while Clint wore a confederate flag bandana. They both smiled the same toothy grin and they had murder in their eyes.
There was no introductory talk before they started beating me.
I came to the shocking epiphany that, until this present violence, they’d been holding back. Each successive blow introduced me to a new experience of pain. I felt parts of me pop and crack that I didn’t know existed. Blood dripped down my face, into my eyes and mouth. I could feel one of them holding my arms back while the other pulverized my stomach in a manic onslaught of punches and cheap shots.
I lost track of time as my consciousness flickered. I gained a moment of clarity when the merciless barrage finally stopped. I was facedown on the ground and spat a wad of blood into the dirt.
“This ain’t over you little shit,” said Clint. His brother leaned over me and spat a wad of chewing tobacco onto my bloodied face. They both threw their heads back laughing and left. I convulsed and I vomited on the ground. I sat up and tried without success to wipe the gore from my eyes. I was alone; there were no spectators for this atrocity.
I tried to stand up, but my knees buckled and I collapsed back to the ground. I needed medical attention soon. I should have gone to the emergency room and seen a doctor, but then I remembered what the unicorn said: “When you hurt the most, do not seek the aid of others; come back to me. Only I can help you.” I had to go to her.
It was a long way back to the grotto; every inch sent pain pulsing through me, reminding me in explicit terms the thrashing I had endured. A deep cut on my brow kept reopening, sending a cascade of warm liquid down my face. Eventually I arrived at the drainage ditch and, struggling to put one foot ahead of the other, I returned to her.
She was in the same spot, the blanket still wrapped around her. She was alarmed but not surprised when she saw me limp inside. I collapsed onto the pool of water beside her, broken and exhausted.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But it’ll all be worth it, you’ll see. Now, sink into oblivion and let the waters heal you.”
I mumbled something incoherent and I lost consciousness.
I awoke sometime later. My mind was immediately flooded with memories of the assault. I braced myself for the expected rush of agony, but it did not arrive. Miraculously, I wasn’t in pain; if anything, I felt great. Revitalized, like I slept in on a weekend. I sat up, completely baffled, and saw Leben gazing at me.
“Wh-what the hell happened?” I asked.
“You are very special, Matthew. The waters have restored you.”
“What? How?” I sat up. My clothes were disheveled and damp with sewer water and god knows what else.
I collected my thoughts. I definitely preferred being unharmed and soaked with sewer water over being half-dead and bleeding out. But it just felt so unnatural.
I remembered she promised to answer my questions, so I started with the main one: “Who are you?”
“I am Leben.”
“Yes, I know that.” I said. “Where are your parents? Who named you?”
“My mother named me. She had another name picked out, but when she saw my stubby, malformed limbs, fused fingers and missing thumbs, she changed her mind.”
“Why would she do that?” I asked.
“She grew up during a bad time and learned how to understand the world from bad people. While I was still in the womb, my mother suffered from terrible morning sickness. It was caused by me. She took medicine everyday called Thalidomide. It promised to help, to make her feel better, and it worked, but then there were side effects. I was a side effect.
“She loathed me. The only time she held me was when she picked me up with her old gardening gloves. She thought touching me would taint her. I was kept hidden away in a dark bedroom, away from prying eyes. She said she wanted to euthanize me, but this was after the war, and that wasn’t allowed anymore.”
“What war? How old are you?”
“Older than you.”
“No you’re not, you’re just a kid. Where’s your mom now?”
She grimaced and a fatigued frown crossed her face. “I have said enough for now.”
“But I have tons more to ask!”
“Listen to me Matthew, I have one more thing to tell you: tomorrow, look to the horizon; you must follow the brimstone rainbow. There your vengeance awaits. All you need to do is give it a push.”
“The brimstone rainbow? What does that mean? And push what?” I asked.
She didn’t respond; her eyes were already shut.
I biked home feeling surprisingly elated. I should be a crumpled heap on a hospital bed; instead, I felt great. I heard the legend that unicorns possessed magical healing powers, but I never guessed it would take the form of sewer water. I had no idea what a brimstone rainbow was, but if Leben told me to find it, I would do my best.
I had a vivid dream that night.
There was a room filled with medical equipment. The walls and roof looked like a rundown greenhouse. In the middle of the room there were six clearly pregnant women in an evenly spaced circle; each was harnessed to an upright chair, feeding tubes snaked underneath black hoods that covered and obscured their faces. Somehow I knew they were all in a medically induced coma. I saw one woman stirring into wakefulness, and I injected her with barbiturates. I waited for the peace to return.
Beside me was a long row of shelves covered in glass jars. Inside each jar there was a malformed child swimming in a broth of formaldehyde. I knew these were our collection of failures, and that soon we would get the formula right. I would make the Unicorn proud. As long as we obtained more Thalidomide.
I went to the fridge and pulled out a large plate of raw chicken wings. It was dinner time. . .
I woke up and tried to brush off the post-dream disorientation, but the vision lingered. I brought every detail into wakefulness. What the hell did I just witness?
By noon I was back on my bike, scanning the horizon. I circled the town, not entirely sure what I was looking for, but confident that I’d know if I saw it.
I was on the outskirts of town when it appeared. Instead of a beautiful spectrum of colors, there was only one, the color of bright urine. It arched across the sky and it appeared to make landfall a few kilometers ahead of me. I wondered if anyone else could see it.
I aimed my bike in its general direction and peddled. Unlike a normal rainbow, it didn’t move forward with me. Instead, as I approached it grew bigger and bigger; it had a clear endpoint and I would be there soon. The closer I got, the more I could smell sulfur, like a thousand rotten eggs.
At the end of the brimstone rainbow was a black pickup truck. It was unmistakable. It was the Gossets. I hid my bike behind a tree and tried to scope it out: the truck was parked on the top of a large hill overlooking a rock quarry. In front of it was a steep decline and a one-hundred foot drop to a pile of rubble.
I looked closely, but I didn’t see the Gossets anywhere. I heard they had a still out here, so I kept my eyes peeled. I knew they had to be near.
Is this what Leben was referring to? Is this my vengeance? What exactly was I expected to do here? Then I remembered Leben’s words: “All you need to do is give it a push.”
It hit me like a slap in the face: I was here to push the truck into the quarry. That would show those bastards. Keying obscenities was nothing compared to this. This was total war.
I cautiously snuck up to the truck. The Gossets were still nowhere to be seen. I opened the driver side door and the cab was empty. I hopped in, released the parking break and set the gear shift to neutral. My heart pounding, I raced to the rear of the truck and heaved with all my strength. It took a monumental effort to get it moving, but once it started it quickly built up momentum and sped down the hill.
That is when I saw two faces emerge from the back window. The Gossets had been sleeping in the back underneath the canopy. They pushed their hands and faces against the glass in a desperate attempt to get out before the truck disappeared from sight off the cliff. I heard a loud crash moments later.
I ran to the ledge and looked down. The truck had crumpled like a tin can. There was no way they could have survived; likely they were squashed piles of leaking viscera.
What the hell have I done? I had no idea this was going to happen. I’ve killed them. Did anyone see? No, there was no one around. The brimstone rainbow had disappeared and the smell of sulphur was gone.
I left as quickly as my wobbling legs would allow. I had to see the unicorn.
I pushed my leg muscles past their limits and peddled like a man possessed. The rain was really coming down now; it pelted my face and left short lived pockmarks on the road ahead. I approached the culvert and saw the drainage ditch was starting to fill with water.
I ducked down into the tunnel and entered the grotto. Leben was in the same fixed position but she looked different. Her look of exhaustion had been replaced with a beaming smile.
“Leben, I think something terrible has happened,” I said.
“No, Matthew, you did what was necessary! They both deserved to die for what they did to you,” she said. Chills traced their way down my spine. I couldn’t believe I was hearing those words from the mouth of a smiling child.
“Wait, what? What are you talking about? Did you know this was going to happen?” I asked.
“It’s all been written in the stars. Sometimes the wicked have to die for their transgressions.”
“Transgressions? What does that even mean?”
“My mother brought me here, Matthew, many years ago. The last time I saw the sky was when I was taken out of the trunk of her car. She carried me into this chamber, always wearing those rough gardening gloves. She sat me upright in this exact spot and left me here to die.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. Before she left she must have felt a pang of guilt, because she leaned over to give me a kiss, the first and only of its kind. But she was wicked and she had transgressed, so I stabbed her in the heart with my horn.”
“What are you saying?”
“She died in here for what she did to me, and for years I watched her rot. She’s under that pile of leaves behind you.” I turned around and saw a suspicious lump I had not noticed before.
“But it had to happen. Just as it had to happen to the Gosset brothers,” she said.
“No! What I did was an accident. I just wanted to fuck up their truck!”
“I know about your dream, Matthew. You were in the greenhouse tending to the broodmothers. It was a preview of your future. You see, our fates are tied and together we will enact vengeance upon those who would call us monsters.”
The rain from outside started to fill the chamber. If the rains kept up, this chamber would fill and Leben would be submerged.
“No!” I shouted. “I don’t want any part of this!” I turned away from Leben, and left the grotto and went into the pummeling rainstorm outside. I mounted my bike and made for home.
I left her there to die. A child who was not a child.
The guilt I felt pervaded every waking thought. What I did, or failed to do, was the most unconscionable thing imaginable. A week passed before I returned to the sewer entrance, but when I arrived, it was flooded with three feet of water.
I can only assume the unicorn was trapped inside the watery grave.
I left an anonymous tip on a police line that a little girl had died in the sewers. I heard a few days later that a body had been recovered. However, it wasn’t a recently deceased girl they found, rather it was a decomposed skeleton. The local newspaper said it was a woman in her late 30’s and that she was found wearing gardening gloves. The death was ruled as suspicious.
One month later and still all I could think about was the unicorn. I could have saved her, but didn’t.
She didn’t deserve to die, not like the Gossets. I had to attend an assembly in their honor, had to sit through all the bullshit speeches, and endure all the undeserved praise heaped upon those scum. I was glad they were dead. I felt guilty at first for my part in their deaths, but eventually I came around. I was starting to think that maybe Leben was right. Maybe we needed to punish the wicked for their transgressions. Seeing my classmates upset that the worst two people on the planet were dead made me realize there were a lot of wicked people out there.
Leben was right about a lot of things. Maybe I should have stuck by her.
After the assembly, I made a detour to the drainage ditch. It was torn up after it was discovered to be a crime scene.
When I arrived I smelled sulfur. I scanned the horizon and saw its source: there was a brimstone rainbow off in the distance. I hopped on my bike and set that repulsive, urine-colored arch as my destination.
The rainbow ended at an isolated and abandoned acreage outside of town. At the center was an old greenhouse.
I went inside and was immediately struck by its familiarity. It was the greenhouse from my dream. Here I cared for the broodmothers and the jars filled with the failures. Here I toiled towards the future the unicorn had seen in the stars. Here I plotted to punish the wicked for their transgressions.
I took in the whole building and realized that this is where my destiny lay.