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Unicorns Aren't Just Imaginary
A poster hangs on the wall – Monet’s water lilies. Water has stained some of the lilies – blurring them more than they previously were. Hannah used tacks to hang it to the wall instead of tape because she was nervous the green paint would rip off the walls like the bark of the paper birch outside her window.
Hannah bought it from a store in town. She didn’t know who Monet was or how famous the painting was – she liked it though and it was on sale. She gave herself a pat on the back for being in tune with what the rest of the world thought beauty entailed.
“I like it.”
She’s sitting on her bed. Back against the wall – knees tucked up. He sits next to her. Their big toe and pinky toe are touching.
“It took some time. But, I think I like it –at first I thought you were being fake pretentious. But, I don’t care.”
“Thanks I guess.”
“No, it’s definitely a compliment.”
He reaches to put his shirt back on. Her shirt was never off – she said it was too cold. Hannah could still taste the salt of his lips though. She bought him Chap Stick once – he never used it. She took it back and used it herself.
“We should go,” he says. His shoes are already on. She hates how he brings the shoes into her room. They are always iced with mud and shards of grass. She likes keeping her rug blue.
“Yeah, do you think he will be there?”
“I guess so, I hope so.”
They leave her house together. She microwaves a leftover pancake, coats it with honey, rolls it into a scroll and eats it while they walk to the car. They listen to the gossip of rocks as they rub under their feet. She still adjusts the mirrors whenever she gets into the car even though no one else drives it. It’s her habit to move them a little and then move them back to their original spots.
Their mix tape starts playing through the one working speaker. Hannah turns down the volume - she only likes hearing the base and not the lyrics. She coasts by a stop sign but their streets are so quiet that no one is there to honk at her. She fumbles with the heat and then turns off the mix tape.
“Do we have to give him anything else?”
“I don’t think so - the sweatshirt is all he asked for.”
“I don’t know why we couldn’t just send it to him. How did he even know that I had it?”
“I don’t know – does it matter?”
“Yeah, who was he talking to about me?”
“I don’t know – it doesn’t matter.”
Hannah had received an email from Mr. Dawson two days ago asking if he could get Sophia’s soccer sweatshirt back. Mr. Dawson had to ask, and not Sophia - she had died a month ago from a disease that no one really could explain because no one really understood it. Sofia had been new that year in school. Hannah had become friendly with Sophia but no one enjoyed spending time with someone who always had a hospital band next to the friendships bracelets on their wrists.
Hannah had forgotten that she still had Sophia’s sweatshirt. She had accidentally taken it after practice. It had begun pouring midway through a scrimmage. Once they saw a line of lighting crack the sky, the game ended and they all ran off the field. The players’ cleats sprayed mud everywhere and everyone was running with their heads down and eyes squinted because it was the kind of rain that hurt when it fell on your face and eyes. Hannah had grabbed the first dark blue sweatshirt from the pile next to their bench. Only when she returned home and wiped the mud and rain from her arms did she realize Dawson was written on the back of it. She forgot to return it the next day and then the day after that and then guilt made her not return it on the third day because she should have already returned it. It lay in the back of her closet slowly being forgotten until Mr. Dawson had sent her that email.
Mr. Dawson had asked her to meet him in a park because it was the halfway point between their houses. She had seen him at some of the soccer games. He was balding and usually wore a dark blue baseball cap to cover it. He had a dark brown beard covering his face, which he always picked at during the games.
“Which gate are we meeting him at?”
“The one near the animal playground,” she replies. The playground’s known for its metal statues scattered throughout the sandbox of animals marching onto Noah’s Arc. At one point, someone had sued because of a religious display in a public area but it never went anywhere. Hannah loved riding on the llama’s back when she was young enough to still let her Mom set up play dates in the park and braid her hair in the mornings. She went back there last week for a photography project – the camels she used to climb under she could now step over.
He pulls up into the parking lot. It’s empty – no one comes to the park in winter. The snow icing the area is a week old. The plows had made grey hills of snow-ice on half of the parking lot.
“You’re still coming with me right?” She puts her gloves on and adjusts her hat in the rearview mirror.
“Yeah, if you want me to.”
“No, it’s O.K. its cold out – I think I can see him from the car, over there on the bench.”
“Yeah, that’s probably him.”
“Do I have to say anything else? Like I’m sorry for you loss? I send my condolences? He looked so sad at the school assembly.”
“Yeah. Are you sure you don’t want me to come?”
“He’s not gonna bite – just keep the car warm. It’ll take 30 seconds.”
She didn’t want to seem preoccupied when talking to Mr. Dawson. Her grandparents had died but she only knew them through holiday dinners and month late birthday cards. It was her first experience with misery and she didn’t want crutches to make her look weak.
She gets out of the car and turns around.
“Don’t worry, its fine.”
He shrugs and turns the radio on.
She holds the brown paper bag in one hand and leaves the other in her pocket. There’s ice on the path. She walks carefully, looking down where she places each step - like walking on a tightrope. She sees old gum and straws from juice boxes but can’t see the lace of branches above her head. She shouldn’t have worn her nice boots.
Mr. Dawson sat on the bench with his arms spread out as if there was someone there next to him. One leg was crossed over the other – his foot was bobbing left to right. He’s looking out at the playground. Her eyes follow his. All the animals were covered with snow, making them indistinguishable. There are a few footprints in the park, but not enough to show that anyone had stayed there for long. The swings look like they were cemented in place and would never be able to fly kids into the air again.
Mr. Dawson is just staring into nowhere - looking like a bored student in one of her math classes. As she walks closer, he gets up from the bench and adjusts his hat.
“Hello, how are you?” He reaches out his hand to shake hers. She moves the brown bag to her left hand before reaching her right hand out. He has a firm grip that seems to last longer than a normal handshake. He doesn’t have any gloves on. He has grey hair on his knuckles. She never realized how unappealing hairy hands were until now.
“I’m good, cold though. You?” It’s an instant response that Hannah doesn’t have time to think over. She’s asked how she is hundreds of times a day. She is always good and curious about how others are.
He isn’t wearing the normal hat. He has on a black fleece one that barely covers his ears. His beard’s been trimmed - making him look young enough to not have a daughter. His eyes have hidden behind his cheekbones and his skin tone seems to be from a black and white photo. He didn’t look like a Dad let alone Mr. Dawson, the father whose daughter had died.
“I’ve seen better times.” He smiles as if she was in on some sort of joke.
“That’s good.” She’s good and the situation is good. It feels frozen - not good. But, situations can’t just be frozen.
“Do you have the sweatshirt?”
“Oh yeah, sorry. I forgot. Funny, I forgot a second time because I forgot to give it back to her the first time…” Hannah allows the cold to cut off the words somersaulting out of her mouth. She moves the bag off her wrist and hands it to Mr. Dawson.
“It’s fine, you can say her name. Thanks - They wanted some of her school apparel to put up in the memorial they are making for her at school. She didn’t have any in her drawers and this is the only thing I could think of.”
She pictures Mr. Dawson looking through Sophia’s drawers and finding all the hidden things a girl wouldn’t want her Dad to find in the back of her drawer – the push up bras and lingerie, the stash of money, maybe even a fake ID. Sophia wouldn’t have one of those though.
“They’re making a memorial? That’s nice.” She sounds like a physiatrist on television – every word is monitored and checked before leaving her lips. She doesn’t want to say her name even if she has permission to – she doesn’t want to really say anything – she wants to go. She looks down at her boots and wrinkles her toes.
They stand there watching the white breath slip out of each other’s mouths.
“She said you were one of her closest friends.”
Hannah had only spoken to Sofia during practice - they didn’t have any classes together. For the last few months, Sofia wasn’t even in school that much.
“She was really nice.” Hannah hated using the word nice – it was used when you couldn’t think of anything else to say. It was worse than good. Nice is saying she was forgettable and bland, stagnant - not what a father, whose fingernails were bitten to the skin, wants to hear.
“It’s cold out. We should be heading home. Thanks again for the sweatshirt.” He rubs his hands together – his blue veins remind her of pinstripes on carnival suits even though they don’t look like them at all. Her thoughts won’t bend the way she wants them too.
She starts turning around but he’s walking in the other direction.
“The parking lots this way.”
“I walked here.”
“My doctor said walking would help.”
“Sorry.” Hannah thinks of the pinstripes and a carnival and otters and the ocean and lakes and Moses because Moses is like Noah and then Monet because they sound alike just how the words Hannah and Sofia rhyme.
She’s walking slowly because her mind is running away. Snow from a branch falls to the cement. She turns around to see where it came from. Mr. Dawson had turned around too.
They look at the fallen snow – slouching on the pavement like a collapsed sand castle.
She had to say something to show that Sofia was more than a lost sweatshirt and that girl who French-braided her hair for practice.
“Hey, Sofia really liked Monet. We talked about it in art class once.”
Hannah hadn’t talked to her about Monet.
“She was a really good painter. She hated when I complimented her.” He raises his voice – there is some distance between them now. She can’t see his eyes anymore. He picks at his beard. It didn’t work for the hairs were too short. He moved his hand upward to adjust his hat.
“I have a poster of some of his water lilies – would you like it for the memorial?”
“I don’t think so. It should really just be about her. Thanks for the offer though.”
“Oh, OK. Well, bye.”
There was nothing else to say. She had used the words good and nice and didn’t want to lie again for lying to a childless father was cruel. There was no word for a parent who had lost a child even though there is the word orphan. Someone forgot it when they were making English – another thing forgotten like the animals in the flood and Sofia’s forgotten sweatshirt and Hannah’s forgotten sanity. She can’t hear his footsteps anymore and realizes he has left the park. She’s alone and doesn’t like all the vacant space – the frozen statues can’t keep her much company.
She realizes that there was no Noah leading the animals onto the arc. They all just knew where to go with no leader. Could there have been hundreds of animals that no one knows about because they got lost or were oblivious to the big gathering on a wooden ship?
Another car had pulled into the parking lot and three kids walk into the park carrying sleds. Hannah doesn’t remember any hills in the park but she doesn’t stop and ask. They’re laughing about something. Their voices sound like microwave popcorn heated up for too long.
She gets in the car and keeps the radio on. She doesn’t bother changing the channel during the commercials. He asks questions and Hannah responds with words like nice and good.
“He wasn’t very nice,” she states when they pull into her garage. “He didn’t seem that sad though.”
“He lost his daughter give him a break.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You did what he asked you, just don’t think about it.”
“I’m trying not to.”
“Just forget it.”
“Like the sweatshirt.”
“Yeah – the sweatshirt.”
The whispers of the wheels occupy their empty conversation.
They hear their footsteps enter the house. She goes to her room and begins taking out the tacks from the Monet poster. She puts them on her desk but the tacks roll to the floor.
“Here, I know you like it - Its too vague for me.”
“It’s fine, I don’t want it.”
“You said you liked it. Just take it, throw it out if you want to.”
“I really don’t need it – you know I don’t have space in my room.”
“Please?” She begins to roll it up and puts it in his hands before he can argue.
When he goes to search for a rubber band, she sits down on her bed. She takes off her shoes in her room and stares at the blank wall. She forgot that the poster had been there to cover a crack in the paint. With her eyes squinted, the crack looks like the outline of a unicorn’s horn – one of those animals that never made it on the arc.