The thirteenth unicorn, p.4
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.4

           W. D. Newman
 
CHAPTER 1

  SCHOOL IS OUT

  Dust motes floated lazily in the warm May sunshine that streamed through the window of Ben’s seventh grade history class. Soon school would be history. For the summer anyway. All of the text books had been collected, final exams were over, and five minutes were all that remained of seventh grade at R.C. Johnston Middle School. At twelve years of age Ben, was a small boy who had not yet hit a growth spurt like most other boys his age. Being smaller than the other boys, Ben shunned sports and other physical activities and spent much of his time reading. His sister Casey was just the opposite. While Ben was a handsome boy with big brown eyes and dark brown hair, he was shy and the glasses he wore gave him the appearance of being bookish and somewhat frail. Casey, on the other hand, was an extraordinarily beautiful and outgoing girl. One year older than Ben, Casey had long curly red hair, green eyes, and a splattering of freckles across her nose. Casey played volleyball, basketball, softball, and ran track as well.

  As the last second ticked off the clock, the final bell rang and students and teachers alike erupted into cheers. Summer was here; glorious, wonderful, magical summer. As the doors of the school were flung open, the summer of 2010 stretched out before all the kids, like a great sea of endless possibilities and adventures. Ben smiled, slung his empty backpack across his shoulders and headed to the parking lot where his father picked him and his sister up every afternoon. Their father, Charles, was a computer programmer for a small company that wrote software for the automotive industry. He always left work in time to pick them up from school and usually worked from his office at home after they had gone to bed. Their father was the one who always picked them up after school because their mother, Carol, had been in a coma now for almost two years. A car crash with a drunk driver had brought this tragedy upon them on a bright crisp fall afternoon - one of those autumn days where the sky seems impossibly blue, the sunshine exceptionally bright, and the fall colors deep and vibrant. The kind of day that gives you a spring in your step and all seems right with the world. The kind of day when you least expect to hear the shattering news that your mother has been involved in a car accident and will probably not make it through the night. However, their mother did make it through the night. Yet now there were no sunrises or sunsets to mark the passage of days for her, only endless hours of sleep and dreams.

  When Ben got to the parking lot he saw that Casey was already in the car with their dad. He opened the rear door of their little Honda Accord and tossed his backpack across the seat as he slid in. No one was speaking.

  “What’s going on?” Ben asked. Casey ignored him and continued to stare out the window. Charles turned the rear view mirror down to look at Ben.

  “Ben, the company has a special project they need me to do and I’m going to be away from home for a while.”

  “That’s cool, Dad. Me and Casey can manage for a few days, we’re not little kids any more.”

  “I’m afraid it’s more than a few days Ben. We have a new chain of stores going live on our system and I’m going to be the project manager. That means I’ll have to be on-site to oversee the installations.” Charles turned around in the seat to look at Ben. “All of these stores are in the Chicago area. The project will take at least two months to complete so I want you and Casey to stay with Grandma and Grandpa Alderman while I’m gone.”

  Now Ben knew why Casey was so upset. Grandma and Grandpa Alderman (George and Louise) lived on a small farm in upstate South Carolina. The closest mall to their farm was over forty miles away. Ben, however, thought it would be cool to stay there over the summer. He always enjoyed the peace and quiet, and the slow, tranquil pace of farm life suited him just fine. Grandpa was always joking, playing pranks and telling the funniest stories. Grandma always cooked the best meals. Every morning she would fix country ham, scrambled eggs, and hot grits with a lake of butter in the middle; or stacks of pancakes smothered with maple syrup and thick slices of crispy bacon. Ben’s stomach noisily rumbled as he leaned forward and snaked his arm around the front seat to poke his sister in the ribs.

  “What about Mom? Who will look in on her while we’re gone?” he asked.

  Ben and Casey’s mother was staying in a full-care nursing home called Newberry Downs. Round-the-clock nurses were on staff to look after her and the other patients who were no longer able to take care of themselves. For the past two years, Charles, Ben, and Casey faithfully visited Carol every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Their visits would mostly consist of Ben and Casey telling their Mom everything that happened in school and at home since their last visit, and Charles telling her about work and family. Their mother never responded, but Ben and Casey firmly believed she could hear them and understand them. They believed that one day she would wake up, ready to go home, fix them supper, tuck them into their beds and kiss them goodnight. Charles kept the kids away from the Downs on the weekends though and tried to make sure that their lives were as normal as possible.

  “Aunt Joann has promised to go see her three times a week, just like we do, while we are gone. And when we get back you will have a whole bunch of adventures to tell her about.”

  “Cool!” Ben said, patting his sister on the shoulder. “Casey gets to milk cows and feed pigs all summer!”

  The rest of the ride home was quiet. Ben thought about all of the fun he would have this summer while staying with Grandma and Grandpa Alderman, while Casey thought about her friends that she would miss and all of the fun they would be having this summer without her. Charles worried about them both. He had to leave them home alone at least twice a year while he attended a user’s conference but that was only for three days, not all summer. Forty-five minutes later, after a quick stop at Wal-Mart to pick up a few things for their trip (Ben liked to call it Wally World), they pulled into the driveway of their suburban Atlanta home.

  “Okay kids, let’s unload, get some supper and start packing. We’ll go see Mom tonight and leave early tomorrow morning.”

  The next morning was overcast with puffy gray clouds that promised rain on what was already starting out as a gloomy day. Ben was quiet, still worried about being away from his mom, and Casey, sullen and pouting, was not speaking to anyone. Charles, however, tried to stay in good spirits and, by 9:30 AM, they were on the road heading north to the Alderman farm in South Carolina.

  Charles’ plan was to drive to the Alderman farm, drop the kids off, then drive to the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport in time to catch a flight to Chicago. The airport was only about ninety minutes from the farm and Charles would leave his car there while he was away. His flight was at 7:00 PM, so he had plenty of time to visit with his parents before he left. They would arrive at the farm in time for lunch and, knowing his mom, there would be a huge spread laid out on the table waiting for them.

  In the back seat, Ben was playing with his electronic chess set. The set was a little metal box that opened up into a game board. The tiny men had magnets in their base and each square on the game board had a little red light. When you played against the computer, the little red lights would blink and show you where to move the men. The set was old. It had belonged to his dad when he was young. When Ben had learned to play chess, and had developed a love for the game, his dad had given him the set. No one at school could beat him and, most of the time, he won the computerized games too.

  Charles turned the radio down. “Hey guys, I’ve got something for you.” Ben looked up from his chess game and Casey, who had been listening to her iPod, pulled the earphones out of her ears. “Casey, open the glove compartment and get the two boxes out. The one wrapped in red paper is yours, and the one wrapped in blue is Ben’s.”

  Casey opened the glove compartment and retrieved the two gifts. She tossed the blue one over the seat to Ben and began opening hers.

  “A cell phone?” Casey asked with disbelief as she tore off the last shred of wrapping paper. She had been begging for a cell phone all y
ear. All of her friends had one.

  “Yes, a cell phone,” Charles replied with a grin. “I don’t want you running up your Grandma and Grandpa’s phone bill over the summer. You know how Grandpa feels about long distance phone calls. The phone is activated and ready to go, so now you can stay in touch with your friends while you’re away from home. Just don’t go overboard.”

  “Thanks, Dad!”

  Casey unbuckled her seatbelt and threw her arms around her dad’s neck. “I’m sorry I’ve been so awful about this. I’ll be fine and I’ll do better, I promise.”

  “I know you will, sweetheart. You’d better put your seatbelt back on. Ben, are you going to open yours?”

  Ben tore the wrapping paper from his gift and opened the box. Inside was an Excalibur hunting knife and a leather sheath. Ben carefully lifted the knife from the box and drew it from the sheath. The blade was about six inches long with a serrated edge on the back side. The hilt was wrapped in tan leather and had a compass on the end.

  “Awesome!”

  “You like it?” Charles asked, grinning ear to ear.

  “It’s totally cool, Dad! Thanks!”

  “I had a knife like that when I was your age. You’ll find a lot of uses for it on the farm over the summer. Just promise me you’ll be careful with it and you won’t cut yourself. Or your sister either.”

  “I’ll be careful Dad, I promise,” Ben said.

  “Don’t run with it and remember to always cut away from your body, not toward your body. That’s how people get their eyes poked out.”

  “Can I put it on now?” Ben asked.

  “No, you’d better wait until we get to the farm. We’ll be there in about an hour.”

  Ten minutes later, they crossed the state line. A big sign welcomed and informed them that South Carolina was a place of smiling faces and beautiful places. Shortly after crossing the state line, they left the interstate and took state highway 11 -- a long and scenic highway that wound its way through the Cherokee Foothills. Ben put his chess game away and was enjoying the scenery. Casey seemed to be entranced as well. The highway cut through rolling meadows, over hills and into valleys, with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a constant escort to their left.

  “Hey look Dad! A fireworks stand!” Ben yelled. “Can we stop and get some?”

  Actually, it was more then a fireworks stand. Sparky’s Fireworks was housed inside a large industrial steel building and had a sign proclaiming it to be the largest fireworks dealer in the southeast.

  “That’s not a good idea, Ben. You know Grandpa doesn’t like them. He says they scare his chickens and cows and that makes them stop laying eggs and giving milk. If you are good this summer, and do not get into any trouble, I’ll buy you both a bag on the way home. How’s that?”

  “Can we get some roman candles?” Casey asked.

  “And some M80s?” Ben chimed in.

  “We’ll see. You’ll have to be extra good though. Mind your grandparents, clean your plates at every meal, go to bed on time, and all that other stuff.”

  “What if we have boiled okra for supper? Do we have to eat that?” Casey asked.

  Ben wrinkled his nose. He hadn’t thought of boiled okra. There could even be boiled squash too! He leaned forward to hear what his dad would say about that.

  “I guess you could skip the boiled okra,” Charles laughed. “Casey, find us some tunes on the radio.”

  Casey picked up some rock and roll on a station called B93.7 and went back to programming her cell phone. She already had her best friends on speed dial and most of her other friends phone numbers entered in the address book too.

  Highway 11 seemed to go on forever but, eventually, they turned off on a secondary road that was mostly tar and gravel and just barely wide enough for two cars to pass by each other. These back roads were so small that it was pointless for the state to paint a dividing line down the center of the road. Charles slowed the Honda down to a safe speed, cut the A/C off, and rolled the windows down. The deep earthy aroma of forests and fields instantly filled the car. The clouds had burned off by now and the day was simply beautiful. Out here, the houses were few and far between. There were no subdivisions and certainly no shopping centers. They did pass a small country store located in the fork of the road. The store was a small whitewashed clapboard building. The side facing the road was painted red, with Coca-Cola written on it in big white cursive letters. There were two old gas pumps in front of the store, the kind with the crank handles you had to turn to clear the numbers of the last purchase. Several old men were passing time sitting on benches in front of the store. They threw up their hands in a friendly wave as the Honda rolled by. Charles waved back to them.

  “Do you know them, Dad?” Casey asked.

  “No, honey, I can’t say that I do.”

  “Then why did they wave to you and why did you wave back?”

  “That’s the way people are out here in the country, Casey. Here comes a car now -- watch.”

  The car was an old primer-gray Camaro. As it passed by, the driver raised his finger from the steering wheel in a friendly hello and Charles reciprocated with a nod.

  “See what I mean?” said Charles.

  “That’s weird.” Casey replied.

  “That’s country,” said Charles, “and here is Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.”

  *****

 
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