Into the Land of the Unicorns
“Gramma, is that man following us?”
Cara’s grandmother glanced over her shoulder, toward the library. When she turned back, her face was twisted in a look that Cara had never seen before. Tightening her grip on the girl’s hand, the old woman began to walk faster.
Cara felt a sudden knot in her stomach. She had expected Grandmother Morris to say, “Don’t be silly, child!”—as she usually did when Cara expressed some unlikely fear. She certainly hadn’t expected the old woman to act as if she took that fear seriously.
Stretching her legs to keep up, Cara asked, “Where are we going?” She tried not to whine, despite her rising fear.
“I’m not sure,” muttered Grandmother Morris.
“Are we in danger?”
Cara’s stomach grew even tighter. “How do you know?”
“Hush, child! I don’t have breath to waste on talking.”
Clutching her books, Cara bumped against bundles and packages as they scurried through the crowds of last-minute shoppers. A light snow had started to fall a little while ago, and it had had just enough time to cover the bright holiday decorations, making everything look crisp and white. Though it was hard to imagine any harm coming to them in this time of good cheer and fellowship, her grandmother’s fear was unmistakable—unmistakable, and catching.
“In here,” said Grandmother Morris suddenly, pulling Cara’s arm to steer her to the right. They went down a narrow street—little more than an alley, really—and turned in through the side entrance of St. Christopher’s.
Cara knew the church well. They had come here often with Simon, her grandmother’s gentleman friend.
The building was dark and quiet inside. Grandmother Morris led the way to a pew near the back of the sanctuary, where they huddled together while the old woman caught her breath.
“I don’t think he saw us come in,” said Cara softly. The statement had more of hope than reality in it. She actually had no idea whether their pursuer had seen them enter.
After a moment, Grandmother Morris removed a chain from around her neck. “Put this on,” she said, handing it to Cara.
Cara’s eyes widened. “Your special?” she asked. This was almost more frightening than the problem of the man who was following them. Grandmother Morris’s “special”, as Cara had always referred to the locket, had been off-limits for as long as she could remember. Despite the times she had coveted the gold and crystal trinket, she could barely bring herself to take it from her grandmother’s hand. She felt accepting it would somehow confirm that the world was twisting out of shape.
“Take it,” said her grandmother sternly. “Put it on. You may need it before this is over.”
“Before what is over?”
“No time to talk,” hissed her grandmother. “Take it!”
Trying not to make a sound, Cara placed her books on the pew. Then, reluctantly, she closed her hand over the bauble. Her fingers began to tingle.
Beneath the locket’s crystal lid coiled a strand of white hair. “It came from a unicorn’s mane,” her grandmother had told her when she was little, and Cara had believed that until sometime around second grade, when she finally understood that unicorns were imaginary.
“What will I need it for?” she asked, as she slipped the chain over her head.
Grandmother Morris leaned forward and rubbed her brow with her fingertips. “Do you think I’m crazy?” she whispered.
Cara felt another twinge of fear. What kind of question is that? she wondered.
Before she could decide how to answer her grandmother they heard a step in the hall. It was followed by the creak—ever so slight—of a door swinging open; the same door, Cara was sure, that they themselves had come through when they entered the sanctuary.
Was their hunter standing there, waiting for them?
To Cara’s astonishment, her grandmother slid to the floor, ducking her head so that it was hidden by the pew in front of her. She tugged at Cara, to indicate she should do the same. When Cara had joined her, the old woman began to move toward the center aisle of the church. Cara followed. The pews were too close together for them to drop to their knees and crawl. They moved instead by a sort of scooting method, until they came to the end of the pew. Then her grandmother did drop to her hands and knees.
No sound yet from the open door where their pursuer stood waiting. And no chance for Cara to question her grandmother as to what was going on.
When they reached the back of the church, they huddled together behind the last pew. Six or seven feet ahead of them loomed a pair of large wooden doors, impossible to open without drawing the attention of their pursuer. Cara stared at them the way a traveler in the desert might stare at an unclimbable glass wall behind which lay a pool of clear water.
No sound from the front of the church. Was the man still there? Or had he closed the door so silently they hadn’t heard, and gone on to search elsewhere? How long would they have to stay like this? Who was he, anyway?
Cara trembled, and tried not to cry as the questions and the fear swept through her. Raising her hand to her neck, she clutched her grandmother’s amulet. The feel of it brought back an old memory, something she could glimpse only in tatters and fragments. It was from just before she had lost her parents. She had been two, maybe three years old, and very ill. Her grandmother had stayed by her bed for many hours. When she had finally been forced to leave by another emergency, she had acceded to Cara’s pleading and left the amulet behind.
It was the first and only time Cara had had “the special” to herself, and she had clutched it tightly as she drifted in and out of fever dreams. And in that time, as she tossed and moaned on the bed, something had come to her. She remembered only a glimpse of white, and a sense of peace. Then something had touched her, with a touch that was fierce and hard, both hot and cold at once. In that moment the fever had broken.
That was all that remained to her of a memory that had tugged and teased in the years that followed, slowly fading from the surface, yet never leaving altogether.
As she grew older, she told herself that it had been an hallucination, a side-effect of the fever. Yet whenever she thought of that event, she had a sense of something altogether unearthly having brushed her life. At times she had even longed to be ill again, in the hope that she might once more experience the strange mystery of that night. She could certainly use a little magic right now….
She blinked. How long had she been sitting here, lost in memories? With some discomfort she realized that her leg was going to sleep beneath her.
Grandmother Morris leaned close. In a voice so soft that Cara could barely hear it, even though the old woman’s lips were brushing against her ear, she whispered, “We have to get out of here. We’re going to crawl to those doors as silently as we can. I will push one open. You go through first. Be ready to run if I give the word.”
Cara nodded. Hoping that her sleeping leg wouldn’t betray her, she tipped herself forward and began to crawl. The beating of her heart seemed to pound in her ears, the sound so loud she wondered that it alone did not alert their pursuer.
Grandmother Morris was close behind.
And what of the man who was stalking them? Was he still here—or had he given up, leaving them to fear nothing but shadows?
The smooth floor was cold beneath Cara’s hands. The door was warmer, and carved with designs that her fingertips couldn’t quite decipher.
“Be ready,” whispered Grandmother Morris. Kneeling beside Cara, she began to push on the door.
Cara wedged her way into the opening, scarcely daring to breathe. She was halfway across the threshold when her grandmother cried, “Run, Cara! Run!”
Springing to her feet, Cara bolted for the next set of doors, the ones leading to the outside. She grabbed the handles, then cried out in despair. The doors were locked.
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