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Read the opening sentence of the story. Is there anything that puzzles you ?
Dad came down with the flu that week, so I had to go down to the subway and feed the unicorns. That was okay, but Jerry saw me going down the street Thursday night and started following me. Now normally that would be okay too — even if he does call me “Frogface” all the time. But that night the timing was lousy.
“Where ya goin’, Froggy ?” he shouted, even though it was perfectly obvious — I was taking the usual shortcut across the pizza place’s parking lot, to the Shop-Rite. What he wasn’t going to understand was why I wasn’t going into the supermarket, but around back. They throw pretty fair stuff out there, the beat-up vegetables and bread and such that not even the charity groups want. You can pick up quite a bit if you get there before the bag-ladies do.
I didn’t answer Jerry back, so when I went around to the dumpsters, naturally he came after me. He sounded a little worried. “Froggo ? Whatcha doin ?”
“Go play in traffic, Friedman,” I said. I was annoyed. This wasn’t something he should be seeing, but I didn’t have the time to waste on chasing him away — the unicorns don’t wait around long. I got a paper bag from inside my jacket and started going through the first dumpster. Jerry looked at me as if I was from Mars. “You okay ?”
“Yeah, fine.” I found half a squashed head of lettuce and some prune Danish that were just a little moldy around the edges.
“Your dad get fired or something ?” He really sounded worried about me now. This was real cute coming from the kid who once took the locking washers off the wheels of my skateboard as a surprise.
“I’m fine, bug off !” I felt stupid then, for shouting so loud the whole city could have heard. The only thing I could think of to do was turn around and shove the squashed lettuce into his hands.
He stared at it. “But what… ?”
“I’m going to feed the unicorns,” I said, hoping he’d think I was nuts and go away. Sure enough, he looked up from the lettuce with an expression that would make you hide your skateboard.
“You’ve finally flipped out...”
“Right,” I said. “Come on, you can call the men in the white coats after I’m done.” I threw the butt end of a bunch of celery into the brown bag, got down from the dumpster, and headed off fast.
He didn’t even begin catching up with me till halfway down the stairs to the Lexington Avenue Local station. It looked the way it usually looks that time of night — dingy concrete, dull light bulbs, peeling theater posters and cigarette ads. I was through the turnstile and a good way down the platform when he hollered after me again. He sounded upset this time. “Frog ?”
I turned. He was on the other side of the turnstile with the lettuce in his hands, and the black lady in the change booth was staring at him. “I don’t have a token,” he said.
“Wha’d you say ? ‘Frog’ ?” I stuck a finger in one ear and started cleaning it. “Oh, all right. Beth…”
I pitched him a token and headed down the platform again. In a few seconds he caught up with me. “What’re we doing, really ?” he said, whispering loudly.
“I told you.”
“Oh, give me a break !”
“Shut up, smogbrain, you’ll scare them !” There was no one else on the platform — I looked up and down it, checking to see that no one was hiding in the tunnel either. The rails ticked a little as an express train squealed in on the lower level.
“Scare who ?”
5. Now go on reading. The magic really begins…
I leaned back against the wall at the very end of the platform, because it was a long story, or it had been when Dad told it to me. And I told Jerry the whole thing — what we thought was true, anyway. How the city had grown around the unicorns, hemming them in. Some of them couldn’t adapt, Dad said, and so they stayed in the deep places in Central Park and never came out. But some of them were bolder — or not as smart. They’d learned to hide in the subway tunnels, always moving, hiding from the trains and the people. The bravest of the downstairs unicorns sneak up onto the street sometimes, on moonless nights or cloudy ones, or during power failures. They’re the reason the grass around trees on city streets never grows long. But most of them aren’t so brave. The shy ones stay in the tunnels all the time. And because of the litter laws, people don’t throw so much food on the tracks for them to pick up anymore. The shy ones starve, sometimes. And the shy ones are the prettiest...
Jerry listened to all this with the hide-your-skateboard look on his face. But he didn’t say anything till I ran out of words and started to blush — there’s something special about those shy ones, something about their eyes ; I felt dumb talking to a boy about it. Maybe Jerry saw me getting red. At least when he spoke up, he didn’t sound like he was teasing. “How do you know so much about this ? Why hasn’t someone else seen them before ?”
“They have.” I still remembered that night Dad came home late from work, looking pale. He hardly said anything at dinner, and after everybody went to bed, I could hear him and Mom talking through the walls — not the words, but their voices. Dad sounded unhappy at first, then upset ; and Mom got loud and finally told him to go to sleep, he’d been drinking too much again. That I heard clearly. For a couple of days he looked awful and kept muttering all the time — he does that when things are bugging him. Finally he waited till Mom was out food shopping, and sat me down in the living room. I was scared to death ;
I didn’t tell Jerry about my Dad, though. “Some of the subway people who work down here — they’ve seen them. They leave them food in places where the rats won’t get it. And they don’t tell. If they told, there’d be all sorts of stuff happening. TV news people, with cameras and bright lights. Scientists. The Board of Health, for all I know. And the unicorns would go in deep, under the streets, and never come out again, and they’d all starve.” I looked at Jerry. His face was so blank it made me scared. “So keep your mouth shut !”
“I better,” he said, real quietly, looking past me. “They’re here.”
I turned around. The eyes had caught him as they’d caught me that first time. You might think they were cats’ eyes, except cats always have that kind of strangeness about them, when their eyes flash at you in the headlights.
If humans’ eyes flashed in the dark, they would look like this. Only the shape is wrong — the eyes are spaced wide like a horse’s. The pair of glimmers looked at us from the dark. Looked mostly at Jerry, rather ; they knew my voice by now. One pair of eyes, then two, a dull pink reflection in the tired subway lighting — just hanging out there where the track vanished into shadow.
They had no names. Dad and I always thought of names on the way to the subway, or on the way back ; but seeing the unicorns, the names seemed cheap — they fell off. I felt around in the bag for the celery. Green stuff was always good to start with — they got so little of it, the shy ones. One of them heard the crunch of the celery snapping and took a step forward, barely into the light.
I heard Jerry’s breath go in as if someone had punched him. It was the same for him as it’d been for me the first time. Nothing that lives in a subway should be that graceful. Cats run, rats and mice scurry. But the unicorns just flow out of the darkness, and not even the cinders crunch when they put their feet down. Sometimes, if they’re playful, they walk on the rails like somebody on a tightrope, and don’t slip or make a sounds. This one just took one step and stretched his neck out like a swan on the lake when it doesn’t want to come too close. The unicorn’s horn glinted, pearly, the only bright thing about him: everywhere else he was the iron-rust color of the gravel between the tracks. His eyes were so brown they were black. But the end of his horn caught the light like the edge of a knife as he stepped out. “Hey, they sharpen them back there,” Dad had said one night, when a touch of a horn drew blood from his hand. Maybe they fought among themselves ; or maybe there were things down there that tried to eat them. I didn’t want to think about it.
“Give him some,” I whispered at Jerry, annoyed again ; he was making them wait. “Throw it. They won’t eat out of your hand.” Jerry tore off some lettuce and threw it down on the tracks. The brown one looked at him for a moment, then put its head down to eat. You could see it was starving ; every rib showed. But it lowered its head slow as a king sipping wine.
More came while the first was eating. Maybe he was the herd leader and had been checking the place out. Whatever, the tracks were full in a few moments — nothing but tails switching and necks stretching and eyes, those eyes. All the unicorns were dark this time, though I’d seen ones with white socks or blazes, and once a tan one with a light mane like a palomino’s. These weren’t any fatter than any others I’d seen, though, and while they ate gracefully, they did it fast. Two of them, a rusty one and a black, got rowdy and waved their horns at each other over a piece of the Danish. Jerry threw them more, and they stopped and each gobbled a piece.
They were close, right up by the platform. I’d never seen them so close. Jerry was so amazed by the whole thing, and the rusty one standing right in front of him with its lower jaw going around and around — even unicorns look a little funny when they chew — that he nearly lost his balance and fell down when the black unicorn snuck up beside him and grabbed at the rest of the Danish in his hand. Even though he was surprised, though, Jerry didn’t let go for a second. He just stood there looking at the black, while it tugged at the Danish and gazed back at him with those deep, sad eyes. I know that look. My eyes started burning, and my nose filled up. Nothing that lives in a subway should be that proud, and that hungry, and feel that helpless. Nothing that lives anywhere should. The black unicorn got the last piece of Danish away from Jerry and ate it, delicately, but fast. Jerry looked a moment at the hand the unicorn had touched, and then wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket.
All their heads went up then, all at once, as if they were a herd of gazelles in a nature movie when the lion’s coming. They stared down the tracks toward the downtown end — and there was just a flicker of motion, and they were gone, headed uptown and into the dark too fast to really see. Jerry looked over at me and opened his mouth — then shut it again as he started to hear what they’d heard: the ticking and the rumbling and the squeal of metal a long way down at the next station.
Âñå ìàòåðèàëû ïðåäñòàâëåííûå íà ñàéòå èñêëþ÷èòåëüíî ñ öåëüþ îçíàêîìëåíèÿ ÷èòàòåëÿìè è íå ïðåñëåäóþò êîììåð÷åñêèõ öåëåé èëè íàðóøåíèå àâòîðñêèõ ïðàâ. Ñòóäàëë.Îðã (0.006 ñåê.)