Wish on a Unicorn
By Karen Hesse
Macmillan Copyright © 1992 Karen Hesse
All rights reserved.
Hannie and I were walking home from school when we saw a unicorn in Newell's field. It wasn't a real unicorn. There's no such thing as a real unicorn. It was just a stuffed thing, propped up against the fence post.
Hannie ran toward it, her chunky legs and arms flapping as she went, her short, dark hair flying every which way, but I wasn't moving my skinny self over there in any hurry. I'm the oldest, so I guess I know how to act, even though some folks think I don't. Well, I know a thing or two. And I sure know one of Brody Lawson's tricks before I get tied in a knot over it.
Brody wasn't going to see me run after some old stuffed toy. I felt pretty sure he was out there, waiting and watching, looking for a chance to make my life miserable. Well, he'd be waiting a long time if I had anything to do with it.
Hannie circled round the unicorn, which was leaning against the fence in the long dry grass. It stood tall as Hannie's waist and was dingy white, like it'd been dragged through the dust and back again.
"It real?" Hannie asked, stroking its mane.
Hannie's different from other kids. She looks normal enough, except one eye is bigger than the other, but she talks baby talk, even if she is nearly eight, so only Mama and me and my little brother, Mooch, can figure what she's saying. Mama says Hannie's slow on account of she didn't get enough air to breathe when she was being born.
Hannie's slow all right. Mooch is almost two years younger, but he already knows more than Hannie does. He can even read a little. Hannie can't read her own name. All the other kids in her class can read some, but not Hannie.
Mama says I have to look out for Hannie and Mooch and teach them a thing or two about this world. Mama doesn't know what a tall order that can be sometimes. Kids at school, especially Patty Jo and Alice, they won't talk to me because of Hannie, even though sometimes I think Patty Jo wouldn't mind being friends. I guess they're afraid Hannie'll rub off on them or something.
"It real?" Hannie asked again.
"Course it's not real, Hannie," I said. "There's no such thing as a real unicorn. Unicorns are just something you read about in storybooks."
I could hear the traffic picking up on the highway behind us. Even on my best day I can't hear those cars and trucks ripping past without feeling spooked. The ground just shakes underneath me and my insides get to shaking too.
"Why it here?" Hannie asked. She was squatting in front of the unicorn.
I shrugged. "How should I know?"
Hannie picked leaves and dried grass off the unicorn. "Hannie take it home?"
"We can't take it, Hannie," I said. "It doesn't belong to us, and besides, Mama'd never let us keep it. It's too ratty."
"Not ratty," Hannie said. "Pretty!"
She really meant it too.
"Just look at it, Hannie," I said. "The unicorn's horn is drooping over and the head's hanging like somebody tried twisting it off. Mama won't even let it in the house."
"Mama might," Hannie said. "Mags ask."
Hannie's forever thinking I can do anything. Well, even if I can do most things, there are some things I cannot do, and one of those things is to talk Mama into keeping an old stuffed unicorn. I know Mama. She'd take one look at that old thing and toss it out faster than spoiled milk.
"Quit touching it, Hannie," I said. "You're getting yourself filthy."
She kept hugging it anyway. "Hannie's unicorn," she said.
"Come on. Leave it alone now. I'll race you home, Hannie. Loser clears dinner for a week."
Hannie runs slower than cold gravy, but I would've let her win just to get her away from that old unicorn.
Hannie squinted her good eye up at me. "Hannie not leave it, Mags."
Brakes squealed up on the highway behind us and someone laid on their horn.
"It's getting late, Hannie," I said, feeling my stomach going to jelly from being so close to the road. "We got to get back home."
"Hannie bring unicorn?"
"No!" I said. "We got to leave it here, Hannie. I'm sure it belongs to someone." I was thinking probably it belonged to old Brody Lawson. It'd be just like him to twist a unicorn's neck.
"Unicorn got magic, Mags," Hannie said.
"No, Hannie. That's just in stories. That's real good you remember what I read to you, but those are fairy tales, Hannie, make-believe. You got a stuffed unicorn there. It's not real. It can't ever be real. And it doesn't have one bit of magic in it."
"Does," Hannie insisted, shoving the dirty unicorn into my face. "Make wish, Mags."
"Wishes don't ever come true, Hannie. Especially not wishes made on a broken-down old unicorn. Believe me."
If wishes did come true, I sure wouldn't be standing on the edge of Newell's field with the highway ripping along behind me, waiting for my sister to make up her mind to go home. I know for a fact wishes definitely do not come true.
"Hannie not leave it."
"Come on, Hannie. We got to get home. Mooch is waiting and I've got chores and I still need to write that stupid essay for Mrs. Fribush."
Mrs. Fribush is my sixth-grade teacher. She assigned us this essay to write about our families. Shoot, I get embarrassed just thinking about my family, let alone writing about it.
"Let's go, Hannie," I said, squinting my eyes up like Mama does when she's losing her temper. "I really mean it this time."
Hannie sat down right in the long grass and refused to come.
I looked around, sure that Brody was watching from somewhere. That was just like Brody, to go sneaking around pretending he wasn't there and listening meanwhile to everything you said so he could throw it back in your face next time he had a good crowd. He surely must be behind this. Who else would be so sly-dog mean as to saddle me with a stuffed unicorn that my sister wouldn't let alone?
I scowled blacker than best shoes. Why do I always get stuck with Hannie?
"What are you going to tell Mama?" I asked. "She's never gonna let us bring this unicorn inside."
"Hide it, Mags," Hannie said. "See."
She stuck the filthy old unicorn behind her and it poked out umpty-dozen places from her back, but she was grinning so the freckles on her nose squinched up close against each other.
That Hannie's as stubborn as an elbow.
"All right," I said, helping her up. "Come on."
I'm not sure how she did it, but somehow Hannie'd sucked me into bringing that unicorn down the road to home.
We were almost to the trailer when Mooch banged out the door and raced down the road to meet us. He's just an inch or two shorter than Hannie and his eyes are both the same size, but other than that they look like two sides of the same door. They both have their daddy's dark hair and they both wear it the same. Mama puts the pancake bowl on their heads and cuts around the rim. Mooch and Hannie are my half-brother and -sister. We don't look anything alike. Me, I've got long blond hair, like Mama.
Me and Mama, we're just a pair of iced-tea spoons — long and skinny. I can't say if I look anything like my daddy. I wish I could. I wish I could remember my daddy, even a little, but I was only two when he died. I can't help wondering sometimes what he was like and how things might be if he was still around.
Mama won't talk about him. Not at all. When I used to ask Mama about Daddy, she'd get all closed up like she'd locked herself in a room. Not a real room. I could see her all right; I just couldn't get to her. She was seventeen when Daddy died. That's not very old. Some folks wanted to take me away from Mama; they said she couldn't take care of me. Mama showed them.
My daddy dying like that was hard on Mama, but it's hard on me, too. There's just some things I want to know, like what my daddy looked like and what he sounded like and what we did when we were all-together family.
All I know about my daddy is that he went up to the highway one night. He went up to the highway and there was an accident and he never came back.
When Hannie and Mooch's daddy lived with us, he was nice enough to me. But sometimes he was mean to Mama. Meaner than burning rubber. That was usually when he was drunk. One night he knocked Mama around and started coming for us kids. Mama threw him out. Skinny as she is, she pushed him right down the trailer steps and out onto the lawn. He banged at the trailer door for a long time and yelled and said he was sorry, but Mama wouldn't let him in. I started to get up, but Mama told me to just stay put. She climbed in bed with me and held me till things quieted down. In the morning he was gone.
Sometimes I miss him. When he was around, we felt like family. But Mama doesn't miss him, I know that for a fact, 'cause she's told me about a million times. She says even if she does have to work all hours of the day and night, she still don't miss that man any more than you'd miss a toothache.
"Ohhh," said Mooch, catching up to us and admiring the unicorn. "Where'd you get that?"
"Down there," Hannie said, pointing back toward Newell's field. "Make wish, Moochie. Magic wish."
Mooch took a solid step back and crossed his arms in front of him. "She making fun of me, Mags?"
I shook my head no.
"Really?" he asked, looking at me again. "I can make a wish on that old thing and it will come true?"
I shrugged. "Hannie's telling this story, Mooch."
"Well, if it's true," Mooch said, reaching out and batting at the horn of the unicorn, "I wish I had something to eat."
It was just like Mooch to be thinking about food. He was always thinking about food. I dug my lunch bag out and tossed it to him.
Mooch tore into the bag and started ripping bites off the stale sandwich. "Mmm. Ffnks," he said.
"Quit talking with your mouth full, Mooch," I said. "It's not polite."
Mooch stuck his butt in my face, sassing me.
Someone has got to teach that boy a thing or two. He's already been in more trouble than most kids twice his age.
I had one foot on the first step of the trailer before I looked back and saw Hannie standing deer still in the middle of the road, staring at the unicorn.
"Moochie's wish," she said. "Moochie's wish."
I walked back to her. "You mean him wishing on the unicorn for something to eat? You think my leftover sandwich means his wish came true? You know I save him my sandwich every day, Hannie. You know that!"
I wouldn't be caught dead eating that stupid sandwich in front of Patty Jo and Alice. They come into the lunchroom with their little bitty containers of chicken and boxed pretzels, and grapes already picked off the branches and hard-boiled eggs with little saltshakers made out of cardboard that you throw away when you're done. And me with just two slices of white bread and jelly in the middle. Forget it. I'd rather starve than pull out that measly old lunch in front of them.
"Moochie's wish," Hannie kept repeating.
"You're talking nonsense," I said, leading the two of them out of the road and back toward the trailer. "That dirty old unicorn can't grant wishes any better than I can."
Hannie looked up at me with the dumbest old cow look on her face and dumped that unicorn into my arms. "Mags make wish."
"I'm not making any wishes," I said, holding the unicorn like it was a load of dirty shorts. "When you go wishing for things, all you get is disappointed."
If half the things I'd wished for had come true in the last couple years, I sure wouldn't need any old unicorn, magic or not. I'd be living in a real house, with pretty clothes that nobody ever wore before me, and so much good food I could invite Patty Jo and Alice over seven days a week and we'd never eat the same thing twice.
"Come on," Mooch said. "Come on, Mags. Make a wish on the unicorn."
"I want too many old things," I said. "Where would I even begin? ..."
Now I didn't believe a broken-down old unicorn could make wishes come true ... not for a minute. But what if it could?
I just wanted to be like everyone else, living in a house big enough so we wouldn't be tiptoeing around Mama sleeping on the living-room couch in the middle of the day. Our house would be big enough. Mama'd have her own room, a room with one of those curved-out windows she likes, and she could sit in that window all day long without one of us kids pulling on her.
And Mama wouldn't even need to sleep in the middle of the day, 'cause we'd have enough money she wouldn't have to work at night. She wouldn't have to work at all if she didn't want to. But even if she wanted to work, she could get a good job, like Aunt Lainie. Not that crummy job she has now, running the machine at the mill.
I wanted to look and act and be just like the other kids at school and not be embarrassed about who I am. I looked down at my pants, cuffed almost to my knees to hide they were too short, and twisted the unicorn's horn in my hand.
"I wish I had some decent clothes to wear," I said. "Some nice, decent clothes to wear, so Patty Jo and Alice would like me. There," I said, dumping the unicorn back on Hannie. "I did it. You happy now?"
"Ohhh!" Mooch cried. "Come inside, Mags. Hurry!"
Mooch grabbed me and Hannie and dragged us up the steps of the trailer. My lunch bag hung out of his back pocket, flat and empty now.
Hannie lugged the unicorn in behind her.
"Leave that dirty thing outside," I whispered to Hannie, but she tugged it on through the door with her anyway.
"Where's Mama?" I asked, balancing my books on a pile of papers on the kitchen table.
"Come on!" Mooch insisted, still pulling on us.
In the living room there was a big box sitting on the couch where Mama sleeps. The bathroom door was near shut, and I heard Mama humming to herself on the other side of it.
"Mama's putting on clothes," Mooch said. "Aunt Lainie sent a whole box of clothes in the mail. All the way from Baltimore. Mama's been in it all afternoon."
Mama had been dividing the clothes up. There were two piles — on one side of the box a great big pile that spilled over onto the end table, and a little pile over on the other side.
Mama opened the bathroom door. She wore a pink sweater with penguins on it. It was too pretty for painting. "Hi, you two," Mama said. "You're home early."
"No, ma'am," I answered. "It's regular time, maybe even a little late."
Mama uncovered the clock on the end table, where it was hid under a pile of clothes.
"Oh, good lord, I better quit fooling around with these clothes and get ready for work. Your Aunt Lainie's new job is so fancy, she can't wear none of her old clothes anymore. Just look what she sent us." Mama started back toward the bathroom. "That pile on the far end there is yours, Mags. You see if that stuff don't fit you."
Mama pulled off that pink sweater, the one with the penguins on it, and tossed it on over to my side of the sofa. "This one's too small for me."
"It's mine?" I asked.
Mama nodded, smiling. She pulled out a new sweater and a pair of pants from her pile.
Hannie moseyed over to the sofa, to see Aunt Lainie's clothes. She was dragging the unicorn along behind her.
"Where'd that piece of trash come from?" Mama asked, staring at the unicorn. Her voice had been soft and happy when she'd tossed me that penguin sweater. Now I heard that tired sound she gets when she's paying bills or when Hannie and Mooch are getting on her nerves.
Hannie poked my ribs with her elbow.
"We found it down to Newell's field," I said.
"Well, you can march it straight back to Newell's field if you don't mind."
"Hannie keep it, Mama?" Hannie pleaded.
Mama glanced at Hannie. "No, baby," she said. Then she turned to me. "If you think I'm letting you keep that dirty thing in this house, Margaret Wade, you've got another thing coming. Honestly, you know better than to let her bring somebody's used-up toy home with her."
Hannie's fingers dug into my arm.
"Mama ... if we cleaned it up, it wouldn't be so bad," I said.
"Don't tell me what's bad. You think I don't know what's bad? Whoever dumped that thing down Newell's field was glad to be rid of it. Now, quit fooling around and get it out of here."
"Please, Mama," I begged. "For Hannie."
Mama squinted up her eyes at me. "I said no, and I mean no, Margaret Wade. Get on, and don't even think about going near those clothes from Aunt Lainie until you've washed up good, you hear?" Mama disappeared into the bathroom.
I scowled at Hannie.
"You hear me, Margaret?"
I looked over at that penguin sweater, all balled up on the edge of the sofa. I just wanted to touch it.
Mama poked her head out of the bathroom. "Get on now, all three of you. Just make sure you're back before I leave for work."
"Yes, ma'am," I said.
Hannie cried as she bumped the unicorn down the trailer steps behind her. "H-Hannie k-keep unicorn, Mags?" she asked, sniffling.
I felt crosser than broken bones, thinking about those clothes waiting in there for me, wondering if I'd ever get to try them on, thanks to Hannie and that stupid unicorn.
"I told you not to bring it in the house, Hannie," I said. "I told you."
Hannie started crying harder, and Mooch kind of leaned up beside her, looking all serious. I swear if they didn't look like Tweedledum and Tweedledee from the play at the high school last year.
"Look," I said. "Mama's right. The unicorn got left in Newell's field 'cause it's wore out and nobody wants it, Hannie, and that's the truth."
"No!" Hannie said, shoving her fists into her ears. "Hannie want unicorn." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Wish on a Unicorn by Karen Hesse. Copyright © 1992 Karen Hesse. Excerpted by permission of Macmillan.
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