Mandy wasn't quite sure what woke her up. Maybe it was the warm summer breeze blowing through the window. Maybe it was the bright full moon shining in.
It was still dark, and dawn was still far away. She heard Daddy gently snoring from across the hall, and wind chimes near the kitchen window make their pretty but eerie sounds. The curtains of her open window fluttered like waves on the lake. The big old cottonwood in the yard gently rustled.
Mandy knew she should turn over and go back to sleep like a good girl. But she didn't. She wasn't tired, not in the least. Besides, there was something in the air. She had a feeling of wildness that she had never felt before. She wanted to jump up and down on her bed, but she knew that would wake Mommy. It might even earn her a spanking.
She didn't want that. What she wanted was to run outside, feel the wind whip through her nightie. Dance and spin under the stars. The thought made her giggle, but she quickly stifled it. Mustn't wake Mommy or Daddy.
Mandy crawled down to the end of bed, to get around the railing of her youth bed. She was about to slip on her Holly Hobby slippers she received on her third birthday, when she stopped herself. The pink carpet felt good under her feet. She wiggled her toes and giggled. She wasn't going to wear her slippers tonight.
Mandy wasn't quite sure what do next. She walked around her room looking at the various decorations. Big Bird, Burt, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch looked down at her with big wide smiles from the wall. The moon was so bright it was almost like daylight.
She walked to the big bay window in her room, and ducked under the curtain so she could see outside. That was when she saw it.
A horsy! A big white horsy standing next to the old cottonwood tree! And it was looking right at her! He wants her to come out and play. She knew it! She burst out laughing and ran out of her room, through the kitchen and into the backyard.
Mandy stopped dead in her tracks on the dewy grass. The horsy was still there. But it wasn't really a horsy. Sure it had a horsy's head and was horsy sized, with a long white horsy mane, but so much was different. On his chin was a little beard, like the man on the chicken box. His body was more like the deer she sometimes saw in the backyard, with long graceful legs and small hooves.
His eyes, though, took her breath away. They were much bigger than normal horsy eyes, and in the moonlight, they seemed to change color continuously, but she never quite saw them change. She could have looked at those eyes till dawn and never got tired.
Then there was the horn. It was snowy white, that gleamed like silver in the moon. It came out of its forehead and spiraled gracefully to a point three feet from its base.
Mandy had never seen anything like this creature. It was the most wonderful, magical thing she had ever seen. She ran up to it with her arms outstretched.
"Hi, I'm Mandy! What's your name?"
The creature smiled at her. It didn't say a thing, but Mandy got the answer none- the-less.
"Eugene?!" laughed Mandy, "what a funny name!"
Mandy turned her head quizzically to the side, "Where are you from? Do you live in the Flint Hills?"
Once again the answer came to her without a sound.
"Avalon? Where's that? Is it near Cassoday?"
This time the silence stretched out over a few minutes.
"Wow, that sounds like a neat place. I wish I could visit there sometime..."
The creature nodded his head
"You can? You will!"
"But what about Mommy and Daddy? They said never to leave the yard..."
"Oh, okay then."
Eugene settled down on his side, just like a deer resting under the cottonwood. He nodded his head and Mandy scampered onto him like he was a giant teddy bear. The creature stood up so smoothly that Mandy wasn't quite sure when it happened.
"Yes, I'm ready."
The creature took off, running across the Flint Hills with a smoothness that no horse could match.
Within a few seconds Mandy was going faster than she ever had in a car. She wasn't scared though. The wind whipping around her, the full moon, and the bright shining stars gave her a feeling of flying, like she'd left the earth and was soaring like a hawk. The wind whipping by filled her ears with a loud roar. It made it difficult to hear anything. The steady, smoothly flowing muscles gave a sense of stability and security, that freed her from any cares for her safety.
She stood up on Eugene's back and let out a shriek of pure joy.
They rode all night, gliding over the low rolling hills as free as the wind.
Just before dawn, Eugene brought Mandy back home. She gave him a big kiss on his nose and a hug around the neck.
Eugene promised he would be back next full moon and galloped off into the gathering dawn.
Mandy watched until he disappeared over a hill.
Mommy and Daddy were still asleep. She tiptoed past their room and into hers. Just as she slipped under the covers of her bed, the alarm clock in Mommy and Daddy's room went off. Mommy slipped out of bed and headed into the kitchen to make coffee.
Mandy smiled. She could lay in bed until breakfast was ready.
She thought about the fun she had had with Eugene. She'd have to wait until the next full moon to do it again, though.
She wondered how long that would be.
A few days later Mandy found out what kind of creature Eugene was.
Her Mommy took her to the Cassoday, Kansas Library. She was returning the books she had borrowed for both Mandy and herself. While Mommy looked for more books to take home, Mandy skipped up and down the three rows of books, looking at the pretty colors of each spine.
She had just skipped down the center aisle, and had turned around to go back up it when she saw a picture of Eugene. At the end of the bottom shelf was a big book, almost half as tall as her. The book had a very complex design on it, full of squiggles and circles. On one side of the design was a skinny lion, on the other side was Eugene, except with a yellow mane.
Mandy pulled the book off the shelf and opened it on the floor. Sadly, there were no more pictures of Eugene. Just pictures of people in funny clothes, and strange big buildings.
The book was big. So big that, when Mandy wrapped her arms around it, her fingers didn't touch. She tried to pick it up to show Mommy, but she couldn't see where she was walking.
"Mommy!" she cried out.
That brought an immediate "shhh!" from up front. Mommy must have gone up to the children's area to look at the books there.
Mandy covered her mouth, in panic. She knew that you couldn't yell in the library. Even if only she, Miss Culver the librarian, and Mommy were in the building.
Mommy hurried back to Mandy. "How many times do I have to tell you not to yell in the library?" she scolded.
"I'm sorry," Mandy whispered loudly. "But look at this." She held up the big book. "There's Eugene."
"Who's Eugene?" asked Mommy.
"A friend I met in the backyard."
Mandy's mother knew that she couldn't read yet, so she couldn't be referring to England's royal family. "Eugene is a lion?" she guessed.
"No silly, the white one."
"Unicorn," said Mandy, testing out the new word. "Unicorn, unicorn, unicorn. Eugene is a unicorn."
"You saw a unicorn?" said Mommy, bemused.
"Yeah, only he had a white mane. He let me climb on his back, and took me for a ride across the hills."
"When did this happen?"
"A few nights ago, when the moon was full. We rode all night. We circled the Peterson's farm three times, but we didn't wake anyone up. Not even the chickens."
"I see! Well the next time you see Eugene, tell him I said hello."
"I will. Maybe you can come with us!"
"That sounds like fun."
Mandy's mother checked out five new books. Two for herself, three for Mandy. She walked down the front steps, to their pickup. Mandy skipped down the sidewalk in front of her chanting "Eugene is a Unicorn! Eugene is a Unicorn!"
Her mother shook her head in amazement. She never realized what a vivid imagination her daughter had. Jack will probably get a big kick out of it when she tells him tonight.
"I wonder where she saw a unicorn, without learning what to call it?" she murmured to herself. "Probably in some cartoon."
Amanda woke up.
It was midnight.
The full moon shone through the window, causing the unicorn mural that her Dad had painted on the wall to shimmer with a eerie glow. She got out of bed as quickly as possible. She looked tentatively at her unicorn slippers, but decided against them. The late snow had melted yesterday, and looked like spring was finally starting in earnest. Besides, she never felt cold when on Eugene, only crossing the back yard would be cold.
She slipped by her parents room. She heard Dad's gentle snore and her mother's labored gasps. Mom had not been feeling well the past few weeks. She was going to the doctor alot, and her hair was starting to fall out.
She had asked her Dad if Mom sick. He said yes, but don't worry. The doctors were doing everything they could to get her well. Some of the medicine that was given would help her, but it also made her hair fall out.
Daddy had smiled when he had explained it to her. But their was a worried look in his eyes, that made Amanda worry all the more.
The six year old scampered to the back yard. She didn't bother looking outside for the unicorn. She knew Eugene would be waiting.
When she opened the screen door and stepped out into the back yard. The stiff March wind caused the just-budding cottonwood branches to dance up and down wildly. It also sliced through her flannel gown, and stung her so hard, Amanda nearly turned back for a robe.
Then she saw Eugene. He stood there, as always, under the cottonwood tree. His mane whipped wildly in the gale, but the rest of him stood against the wind as motionless as a rock. His white leonine tail swished back and forth against his pale flanks.
Suddenly Amanda no longer felt the cold. She ran out across the lawn to her friend. Eugene dropped his head to just to the right level, so that she could hug him around the neck.
"Oh, Eugene!" Amanda cried. "I've missed you so much! The twenty-nine days between our meetings seem to go by so slowly."
Eugene told the girl that he had missed her too.
"I tried to tell Miss Lederman, my first grade teacher, about you. But she thought I was just making it up."
The unicorn replied that few adults believed in unicorns, that she shouldn't expect grown-ups to believe her.
"I know. But still Miss Lederman is my best teacher ever. I thought she would believe me."
Eugene sympathized with her.
"So, where are we going tonight. I liked the waterfalls in California last month. Could we go back there?"
Eugene informed her that he had something special planned. He was going to introduce her to one of his friends.
Amanda was stunned. She had never met anyone but Eugene. "Is it another unicorn?" she exclaimed breathlessly.
Eugene said no, it was a friend who lived very close by.
He pointed his horn over to the cottonwood. From behind the tree stepped a woman. She was very tall, at least eight feet, with brown skin, long thin arms, and a slender oval face. She was the most beautiful person Amanda had ever seen. Even her short green hair didn't distract from her beauty. She seemed too big to have hidden behind the tree, though.
"So, Amanda, we meet at last," said the lady with a musical voice. "Eugene has told me so much about you." She knelt down awkwardly before her, and solemnly shook her hand. "I'm Ai-lara."
When Amanda touched the lady's hand something didn't feel quite right. She moved like a real person, but her skin was too hard. "Are you made of wood?" she asked, wide-eyed with wonder.
Ai-lara laughed a high melodic laugh. "Child, I am wood. I'm a dryad. A tree nymph. I live in this tree."
Amanda let out a loud gasp. "You live in there!? Our old cottonwood."
"Yes dear, but it's my cottonwood. You just happen to be living next to it."
Amanda was alarmed. "Oh, I'm sorry. It's just that I didn't know that a dry... dry..."
"Dryad. Right. We didn't know that someone lived in the tree."
"I understand," assured the nymph. "I tend to keep to myself. I don't get along very well with most modern folk."
"How long have you lived in there?" asked Amanda, examining the tree anew.
"Every since this tree was a seedling. Nearly three hundred years."
That impressed Amanda. "Wow, you must have seen a lot."
"That's true. I've seen the arrival of the Europeans, with their plows and herbicide and technology." The dryad shook her head sadly.
Then abruptly she perked up. "But I've had some good times. I remember this big strapping Caw brave. Boy did we have a good time together. His name was..."
Just then Eugene interrupted to tell Ai-lara that it was too cold outside for little girl.
"I am not a little girl," Amanda protested with a shiver. "I'm a big girl. Six and a half."
The unicorn and the dryad shared a smile. "Of course, you are, dear. But Eugene is right, you need to get out of this cold. How would you like to visit my home."
"In the tree?"
Amanda looked skeptical. "Uh, I don't think there is enough room in there for both of us."
Ai-lara let loose another beautiful laugh. "You'd be surprised, dear. Would you like to come over for a visit?"
"I guess, if Eugene thinks it's okay. What do you think, Eugene?"
Eugene motioned for Amanda to come over, where they could talk in private.
Ai-lara did not seem upset by this. And told them to go right ahead.
When they were alone, Eugene told Amanda that she should be fine, as long as she didn't eat or drink anything. If she did, she would not be able to come home. So she should bring some food and water in case she gets hungry or thirsty.
Ai-lara knew this, but dryads don't have the of best memories. So Eugene warned Amanda very sternly to politely refuse any food or drink offered her.
Amanda quickly ran into the house. She grabbed some Chips Ahoy cookies out of the cupboard, and the bottle of chilled water out of the refrigerator, then ran back, shivering, to where Eugene and Ai-lara were waiting.
When Amanda said she was ready, Ai-lara reached to the tree and turned a wooden knob on the tree's side that Amanda had never seen before. There was a click, and a door opened in the side. It was camouflaged so well that no one would have been able to find the seams of the door by searching.
Inside the door was a circular room with a couch and two wooden chairs. The room was lit with a flickering golden glow that reminded her of firelight.
When Ai-lara and Amanda stepped through the door, Eugene waited behind. "Aren't you coming too, Eugene?" Amanda asked.
Eugene assured her that he would be coming along soon, but not through the door.
"Oh my, yes!" added the dryad, "he is much too big to fit through my doorway. He'll be able to visit through my windows or my other door, though."
"Your other door?" asked the girl.
"Once the door closed Amanda saw that indeed there was another door, along with two windows. The walls were decorated with a small painting of Eugene. A bookshelf stood on the floor under it. A large red rug covered most of the floor.
The ceiling was exactly as high as Ai-lara, though none of her short green "hair" (which were in fact buds) ever quite touched the ceiling. The rings of the tree radiated out of the center of the ceiling.
The golden glow she mistook for fire, in fact came from two giant fireflies, each at least two inches long, hovering above, near the ceiling. Amanda looked up fearfully at the giant bugs.
"Don't be afraid," the dryad said. "They're my friends. I give them food, and they give me light. They won't ever bother you, or get in your hair."
Thus reassured, Amanda ignored the light source. She walked over to the window and looked out. What she saw took her breath away.
Outside was a dense forest, with the largest trees she had ever seen. They seemed to be of all types: Ash, oak, sequoia, and willow. All growing side by side. There were even some types that she had never seen in her adventures with Eugene. Weaving through the branches were more fireflies. The forest was so thick she couldn't see the sky.
Amanda looked at the window, and found the latch. She opened the window, and the smells and sounds of the woods hit her.
The smell was a mixture of candy, fruit, and baking bread. There were other smells that she couldn't identify. New ones drifted in occasionally, altering the blend. The smells were sometimes strange, but never unpleasant.
The sounds of the forest were equally varied. There was always the sound of laughter. High titters and low chuckles. Giggles and guffaws. Polite laughter and wild uncontrolled laughter. Solo laughter, laughter in chorus. Some laughter seemed deep in the woods, and others seemed to come from just a few feet away.
There were other sounds intermixed with the laughter. Croaks of frogs, roar of bears. The caw of crows, the call of the meadow lark, and the hoot of the owl. There were also other sounds of animals she didn't know.
This place seemed to be just teeming with life.
How long Amanda was lost in the sights and sounds, she didn't know. "Where are we?" she asked finally.
"The Faerie Realm," replied the dryad, "where both Eugene and I live."
"Do you live near Avalon?"
"Sometimes. Things tend to move around in the Faerie Realm."
Just then Eugene trotted up to the open window, and stuck his head through.
"Can I go out and look around?" she asked.
"Why sure," said Ai-lara, "just don't go out too far..."
Eugene interrupted. He reminded Ai-lara of the reason she wanted to speak to the girl.
"Holly and shrub! What was I thinking. Amanda, come here dear. I want to show you something."
Amanda sat down on the couch.
The dryad suddenly looked unnaturally serious. "Amanda, look at my feet."
Amanda let out a gasp. She hadn't noticed her feet. They were twisted, with a black crust covering them.
"Oh your poor feet!" cried Amanda, as she crouched down by them. "They look like they were burned."
Ai-lara grimaced at Amanda's touch. "They are burned. Burned by your father."
"What?! Daddy wouldn't do anything to hurt you."
"Amanda, my feet are also my tree's roots. A few weeks, ago your father sprayed some weedkiller on the ground. It not only killed the weeds, it also hurt my roots."
"He didn't know! I swear he didn't know."
"I know he didn't," said the dryad. "That is why I am telling you. So you'd tell him."
"I will. I promise," she said.
Amanda looked hesitant for a second, then blurted out, "do you mind me climbing on you?"
This brought on another melodious laugh. "Of course I don't. Not anymore than I mind birds nesting in my arms. It makes me feel useful.
"I also don't mind if your father fertilizes me with compost or trims me every once in a while. Helps me grow better. Just make sure that he uses hand saws, not any of those horrible chainsaws. Technology cutting into me would kill me. Not the tree, but ME! Understand?"
"I sure do! I'll be sure to tell him."
"That's a good girl. Now how about that look outdoors?"
Eugene informed Amanda that it was almost dawn back home, and that she needed to return.
Both girl and dryad groaned in disappointment. They hugged each other goodbye, and Amanda left through the door that delivered her home.
Eugene was by the tree waiting for her.
To the east, the first hint of pink was tingeing the horizon.
Amanda turned to Eugene. "Will we be able to visit Ai-lara again?"
Eugene told her that Ai-lara really liked her, and definitely wanted to see her again.
"Great! Is Ai-lara always in the tree."
Almost always, said the unicorn. Dryads can only stray a hundred feet from their tree, before they got sick and died.
"It must be hard to be stuck in a tree. Never to see the world."
But, said Eugene, to a dryad her tree is the world.
"Too bad we couldn't go for a ride."
Eugene smiled and offered Amanda a quick ride across the hills.
The young girl let out a shriek of delight, and leapt onto her best friends back. They tore off together into the lightening dawn.
Amanda let out a sigh as she looked dreamily out the school bus. Only five days till the next full moon.
It'd been seven months since she met Ai-lara. In those six visits with Eugene she had had the most wonderful time. In the Faerie Realm, she saw the most beautiful sights. So beautiful, in fact, that she sometimes had trouble believing they were real, not one of Daddy's paintings.
She also met the most fantastic creatures. Centaurs, satyrs, nereids (water nymphs), pixies, nixies, elves, and other dryads. They were all very nice, though Eugene seemed a bit distrustful of the satyrs.
Some of the other creatures weren't so nice. Ogres, goblins, and trolls would have eaten Amanda if they could. But one look at Eugene, and they all cowered or ran away.
Eugene was her guardian and friend. He protected Amanda, and reminded her not to eat any food, or drink any water native to the Faerie Realm. She didn't need to be reminded very often, though their food looked and smelled so good. She knew that if she ate any faerie food she would be become one of them, maybe a centaur or an elf, and would never be able to return home.
Life had been hard on Daddy lately. Mom died a few months ago. That had been hard on Amanda too, but Eugene and Ai-lara made a special trip over and helped her through her grief. It wasn't a full fledged visit, since it only lasted an hour. But she felt much better afterwards.
Daddy didn't have anyone like Eugene to talk to. He just had her. She had tried to help him, like Eugene had helped her, but it wasn't the same.
She had to be very careful not to eat faerie food, especially now, or else she'd leave her Daddy all alone.
Each visit, Eugene insisted they always spend a some time with Ai-lara, though Amanda was anxious to explore this amazing new world. Ai-lara was a pleasant enough host, but she tended to talk of nothing but her home. Her hair had grown long, full, and green through the spring and summer. Last time Amanda saw her, Ai-lara's hair was turning brown and starting to fall out, just like the leaves on the cottonwood. Eugene said she was completely bald during the winter. Amanda thought she would look funny bald.
"Hey Amanda! This is your stop!" called the bus driver.
The new second grader snapped out of her reverie, yelled good-bye to her friends, and bounded out the door.
The school bus pulled away, heading a half mile down the road to drop off her friend Rhoda Peterson at her home.
Before running up the drive, Amanda paused to take in the day. It was beautiful fall day. The sun was shining, but a nip in the gentle breeze was a reminder that it wasn't summer any more.
There was also a hint of burning leaves in the air. Daddy must have done some raking today. She hope he burned them well away from the cottonwood. She had told him how Ai-lara feared fire.
Overhead, a flock of Canadian geese flew south in a "V" formation. Their honking could barely be heard from their great height.
Another faint sound could be heard. The sound of an engine running. It came from her house.
Daddy must be fooling around with that motorcycle he bought, thought Amanda. Since Mom died three months ago, her father hadn't been able to paint. He had been finding all kinds of activities to fill his time.
Just then the engine changed pitch to higher whine. Amanda knew it wasn't the motorcycle.
"He wouldn't," whispered Amanda to herself. "He promised!"
Amanda ran up the hundred yard gravel driveway up to her house, as fast as her short legs would carry her; yelling "Daddy! Stop!" all the way. She was still yelling that when she rounded the corner of the house.
Amanda's father was standing on an aluminum ladder, cutting a low-hanging branch on the giant cottonwood. With a chainsaw. There were already three long branches at the base of the ladder.
"DADDY!!" Amanda screamed at the top of her lungs. But he didn't hear her. The chainsaw was too loud.
Amanda arrived at the ladder just as the branch fell on the ground. Her father saw her down at the bottom, smiled down at his daughter and climbed down. "Hiya kiddo, how was school."
"Daddy," puffed Amanda, "how could you! You promised!"
"Promised what pumpkin?"
"Remember what Ai-lara said about trimming her tree"
"That she liked it. It helped her grow."
"Yes, but you can't cut her with a chainsaw!"
Amanda's father looked puzzled. "Why not?"
"It will kill her!" she cried, tears running down her face. "She can't stand the technology! You need to use hand tools!"
"But a hand saw would take twice as long. With this chainsaw I borrowed from the Petersons the job gets done in no time flat."
"But it will KILL HER!!" Amanda screamed hysterically.
"Okay, okay, Mandy! If you feel that passionate about it. I'll finish up with my hand saw. I can use the exercise anyway."
"Oh, thank you Daddy! Thank you," cried the little girl, as she hugged her father's waist.
As her father walked to the toolshed, Amanda ran up to the trunk, and tried to put her arms around it. She apologized to Ai-lara profusely for not telling Daddy her instructions well enough.
Jack Hingle looked back at his daughter and shook his head. What a fantasy life Amanda had.
He might have been concerned, except he remembered his childhood. When he was about her age he was a convinced he was a pirate captain named Black Bart. This concerned his parents greatly. They took him to a child psychologist. Even after the doctor said he was perfectly normal, they still fretted over him.
He didn't want her to go through the same ordeal he did. He knew she would gradually outgrow these fantasies and become a intelligent creative adult. Maybe she would become a painter like her old man; or a sculptor or writer.
As Jack reached the toolshed, a thought occurred to him. Maybe he could paint Amanda's stories. He knew she would like it; and it might get his creative juices flowing again.
Five nights later, Eugene and Amanda went in search of Ai-lara.
Eugene hadn't seen her for about a week, said that just because Ai-lara couldn't reach Amanda's world anymore, didn't mean she was dead. It could be that she was now living solely in the Faerie Realm, like most dryads these days.
Getting Amanda into the Faerie Realm without using a dryad was tricky. Eugene could cross between worlds at will. But Amanda couldn't.
To get Amanda across, they had to find a truly wild area and hunt for a crossover point. Crossover points tend to move around a lot.
Eugene said that the nearest wild forest was in the Rockies.
Amanda jumped onto the unicorn's back and took off.
They reached their destination quick enough, but it took Eugene an hour to find a crossover point.
Amanda couldn't tell exactly where the point was, but when she saw the fireflies and the twilight skies of the Faerie Realm, she knew they had made it.
It took them another hour to find the cottonwood. It had moved quite a distance from its position last month.
The cottonwood looked exactly the same as in the normal world, except it was twice as big. There was no door or windows, anymore. No sign that a dryad had ever lived there. Where the chainsaw cuts were, there were ugly black blisters.
Amanda sat down at the base of the tree and cried. "you must hate me, Eugene," she sobbed. "I killed Ai-lara. I failed to tell Daddy right!"
Eugene walked over and nuzzled the little girl with his big white head. He didn't hate her. He loved her. And didn't blame her for Ai-lara's death. She had done her best. Her father just didn't understand. It wasn't even his fault.
Amanda reached up and hugged her unicorn's neck, her tears soaking into his shiny coat. "You're so smart," she said. "What would I do without you."
You'd survive without me, he assured her. Things would just be a little less complicated.
"I don't ever want to lose you, Eugene. Promise me you'll never leave me."
Eugene promised that he would never leave her, but warned that one day she might leave him.
Amanda was about to ask him what he meant, when Eugene informed her it was almost dawn.
Getting back to the Human Realm was easy. Eugene could cross her over at will, since the Human Realm was where the little girl belonged.
Fog rolled in and engulfed the girl and the unicorn. When the fog cleared, they had returned to Amanda's back yard, just as the sky was turning pink.
Amanda wiped her tear-stained cheeks, gave Eugene a quick hug good-bye, and ran into the house.
The cottonwood continued to survive. But to Amanda, the tree was never the same.
Its leaves no longer were as brilliant a green as before. And it never really grew in size again. Limbs would die and a new one would take its place, but there was no real new growth.
Amanda ran out into the moonlit back yard. As always, Eugene was there waiting for her. The night was clear, and the wind very light for once. The gentle breeze made the May humidity tolerable. A perfect night for riding.
The twelve year old ran across the lawn and gave the unicorn a big hug. Eugene returned the hug, but there was a stiffness to it that Amanda had never felt before.
"Eugene, what's wrong?"
The unicorn expressed his concern in four words: You're now a woman.
Amanda was amazed that Eugene could tell, but not surprised. He was, after all, an extraordinarily perceptive creature.
"Yeah, it happened two weeks ago," Amanda said sheepishly. "It was gross, painful and disgusting! I had to miss three days of school."
The unicorn paused and looked away. As if, for once he was uncertain what tact to take. You know what this means, he asked at last.
"Sure, my Dad explained the 'Facts of Life' to me years ago."
No, said the unicorn, he meant what this means to us.
This time it was time for Amanda to pause. Tears welled up in her eyes. "You're not leaving me are you?"
Not yet, he assured. What made her think he was?
Amanda wiped her eyes hurriedly "Well, one of the books I read said that unicorns only befriended little girls."
Most of those books are more wrong than right, he said.
"Tell me about it. Some of the books I've read got the descriptions of you and the Faerie Realm totally wrong."
Did any of them talk about unicorns and virgins?
"Oh sure. I figured that was crap also... Sorry." Eugene disproved of Amanda using course language.
In this case it isn't, Eugene said.
"You mean if I ever..."
Gave yourself to a man, you'd never see me again.
"Well that's not going to happen. Boys are such jerks. Yuck!"
Eugene expressed his relief, but knew that it was just a matter of time before she'd have to choose between him and love.
The auction had been going on for 4 hours. Amanda had thought that it would go faster than this. Only half of the 56 paintings had gone up for sale. It looked like another 4 hours of proceedings still remained.
She had once asked the proprietor of the Wichita Art Museum why the lengthy delays. He had nodded over to the remaining stack of pictures, "You've got to allow the bidders to examine each art piece. Remember: most of these have never been seen by anyone but you, and the photos issued to the press don't do the works justice."
Amanda understood, and she had no reason to complain. All the painting so far had gone for at least double the amount estimated by the appraiser. Investors from all over the U.S., and a few from other countries had swarmed to the Midwestern city in order to bid on the works of the late Jack Hingle. It was a boon to the city's economy.
Still, she wished the process would speed up. She felt she was selling off pieces of her father's soul, with each sale. The pieces were some of her father's more personal pictures. Paintings of their home, her late mother, wild deer that still wandered the prairie, even two pictures of her as a little girl, playing in the fields. By the time the sale was over, she should at least double her net worth.
Her father had died two months ago, in a wreck on I-35. He was in a car, the other driver was drunk in a semi. The funeral had been a small private affair. He was buried in the Cassoday's only graveyard, next to his wife.
The first few weeks Amanda spent in shock. She spent days wandering from room to room, eating little, looking at all the small personal things that made the house Jack Hingle's home. It wasn't until her monthly visit from Eugene that she broke out of her reverie.
"You didn't visit me the night after, like the first time." She didn't intend it, but a slight accusatory tone was in her voice.
Eugene took no offense. He told her that she didn't need him this time. Her mother's death had taught her how to grieve. He reminded her that she was nineteen now, and more mature.
That meeting with Eugene got Amanda to thinking about the future. What were her plans? She knew that in some way it would be tied to her home and the land surrounding it. Over the next few days she started forming a plan. She did some quick calculating, and discovered that her plans would drain her of most of her inherited money. That wouldn't do. She needed more money. Thus this auction.
The auctioneer's voice interrupted her train of thought. "Coming up for bid, Lot #29: 'Cottonwood on the Prairie.'" Amanda cringed. She had almost decided against putting this one up for auction. That painting was one her favorites. Definitely his best painting of the tree. In the painting the cottonwood stood alone on the flat prairie. It was small enough in the picture to show its isolation, but big enough so it didn't look insignifi- cant. From six feet away, the picture had an almost photographic quality. You could see the cotton-like clumps of seed hanging off the branches, waiting for the wind to disburse them far and wide. Amanda could almost feel the stifling heat of a summer's day, and the sound of locusts serenading the swelter, whenever she looked at it. As one got closer, though, the impressionistic quality of the work shines through. The tree, the clouds, even the ground itself were made up of small dabs of paint, not even strokes.
"Isn't it great?" said a voice next to her.
Amanda turned toward the voice. It was a man, not much older than she. "Excuse me?"
"The painting, I think it's wonderful. The best piece yet."
She turned to study the art critic. He had brown hair, brown eyes, a narrow nose, and an intriguing grin. He was also tall, six foot-four at least. He towering over Amanda, who stood five, nine.
"Why do you think so?" she asked, conversationally.
"I don't know. I guess it has a feeling of solidity, stability. But at the same time it conveys the struggle against the elements that this tree has withstood over the years. The windswept branches. The twisted trunk. All very beautiful."
Amanda stared at the stranger. It was just a first impression, but there was something about him that she found very attractive. He was the kind of man who could sweep her off her feet and tempt her away from Eugene and the Faerie Realm. She should get away from this man.
"If you say so," she said, as she started to move away from him, when she glanced down. There was a wedding ring on his left hand. She let out a sigh of relief, he was already taken.
"Is your wife here?" Amanda asked.
"Ellie? Nah, she's out shopping. Art is not her thing. Her idea of high art is Franklin Mint."
The young man turned to Amanda, extending a hand. "By the way, my name is Kevin Archer."
"Aman... Not the Amanda Hingle, daughter to Jack Hingle. The person putting on this auction?"
"Guilty as charged."
"Oh wow, this is an honor! Your father was a great painter."
"And a terrific father." she said quietly.
"Of course, my condolences..."
"Shhh," said a lady next to Kevin, "the bidding is about to begin."
The bidding began at $20,000. Kevin was an active bidder until the price reached $50,000. Then he dropped out. "Whew, too rich for my blood," he whispered to Amanda.
"There are smaller pieces still to come, you should be able to afford," she whispered back.
"Actually, fifty thousand was too rich for me. Ellie would have had a cow if I had bought it for that much."
"So she controls the purse strings?"
"She thinks she does. Actually, she can be as much an impulse shopper as I. We are sort of each others conscience."
The painting ended up selling for $165,000. The biggest sale yet.
"So, Mr. Archer..."
"Kevin. What do you do for a living?"
"I'm the junior associate in business law firm."
Amanda's interest perked up. "Really? I may need a lawyer soon. I'm thinking of making substantial business transactions in the near future."
"You'll have the capital, after today."
"Oh, we already had money. My father's father was a big oilman, and my dad was his only child. Grandpa died before I was born."
"You must have something quite sizable in mind," said Kevin.
"I'd rather talk about it in your office."
"That'd be fine." He gave her his business card. She thanked him with a shy smile and walked away.
Kevin Archer watched the young Miss Hingle's hips sway into the crowd, and let out a sigh. This was one of the times when he almost wished he wasn't married. There was something about her; her directness, her intelligence, and her hips, that he found quite appealing.
Amanda Hingle was one of the true oddities of Chase County. She had been a normal enough girl until after her father died. It was then that Amanda's eccentricities became evident.
A few months after his death she had the electricity and phone lines to the house cut off, using only gas for heating and cooking. She was seen walking out at night, using an old fashioned kerosene lamp for illumination.
Over the space of a year Amanda bought, with the help of her lawyer, the four properties that surrounded hers. On each purchase she paid considerably more than market price. After she bought each one, she had all structures on it leveled. All finished, she owned five thousand acres of Kansas prairie farmland. She sealed it all off with a heavy wrought iron fence, barbed wire on the top.
Amanda, when she was on her property, eschewed all technology, except water and gas. She mowed her yard with an old fashioned push mower. She wore simple homespun undyed dresses and handtooled leather sandals and moccasins.
But whenever in Cassoday, Ms. Hingle stuck to the normal dress of everyone else. Some people who only saw her in Cassoday did not believe all the stories. The pictures that circulated in the local paper, though, supported the gossip.
Amanda kept a small office in Cassoday. There she managed her finances. She had a telephone, computer, and all the other modern conveniences. She went there at least three times a week.
As the years passed, Amanda became more and more a hermit. She rarely talked to anyone. She never responded to dinner invitations from her old high school friends. The only person she ever talked to was her lawyer, Kevin Archer. He would come up I-35 every week and keep her updated on her projects.
In the last year, five years after Jack Hingle's death, Amanda made several unusual moves that got the area talking anew.
First, she added buffalo and elk to her property. This brought a storm of controversy. Neighboring farmers worried that the elk might carry rabies. But there was no increase in rabid animals, so the controversy died.
Secondly, she started dating her lawyer. Kevin had been divorced from his wife the previous year. They had been spotted at the local movie house, and driving down I-35 toward Wichita. One person reported seeing them necking out by El Dorado Lake. The rumor mill speculated on how long such an odd pairing would last.
Kevin Archer tunelessly hummed to himself as he drove over the hilly dirt road. The day was a little hot for driving with the top down, but he liked the feel of the wind whipping through his hair. Besides it helped distract himself from the butterflies doing battle in his stomach.
Kevin was not quite sure what to make of her request to come to the house. He had been by its fence several times in the past, but this was the first time she had invited him in. He always met her for dates at her office in town.
He guessed that he could take it as a positive sign. A sign that she finally wanted to share this part of her with him. And he probably would have, if it weren't for the strange time. She had specifically asked for to come at 8:30 PM. He had no idea what to make of that. It was too late for a dinner together. At least it was June, not December, he mused, else it would be pitch dark right now.
Even stranger, she had asked specifically for him to be sure to bring the pocket knife she had given him last Christmas.
Amanda methods were mysterious. But there was always some form of convoluted logic to them. But that was part of what he found so intriguing about her.
He zoomed through the intersection of the road with another. The other road had a stop sign, so he had the right of way.
To his left he saw the heavy wrought iron fence the marked the boundaries of Amanda's property. He was getting close
He looked over to see if he the buffalo herd was close by. He didn't see them, but with these hills, they could be only a hundred yards away and he'd never know.
Kevin crested the last hill. At the bottom was the only gate leading to the property. As he approached he saw Amanda, waiting. Kevin pulled his LaBaron up behind her Saab, parallel to the road. The gate was only big enough for foot traffic, not cars.
To get the buffalo and elk into their new home, they had to use a crane to physically lift the bigger ones over the fence. What a mess that had been, Kevin mused. As far as he knew, no cars had been on the property for at least four years.
When Amanda walked up to the car, he almost didn't recognize her. He had only seen her in her country mode a few times before. It certainly wasn't the same look Amanda had when he had taken to plays and restaurants. She looked completely different. Not bad, just different. Her blonde hair was hanging loose, not artfully done up. She had no makeup on and wore no perfume. Her peasant dress was coarse, hand-woven, and undyed. This was the Amanda Hingle he'd seem in the local papers. The difference was astounding.
As she walked toward his car, all the feelings came back. All the time they had spent together. The precious moments they had in each others arms; when he could coax a kiss or two from her. And the few times when she returned his kisses with unrestrained passion. It was at those times when Kevin saw how breathtakingly passionate she could be.
There was something holding her back, though. Something that kept her from giving her heart over to him. Sometimes, when she thought he wasn't looking, he saw her gaze at him with an intense longing on her face. But when she saw him looking back, she brought back up her shield.
Kevin tried to figure out what the problem was. It wasn't shyness, at least not ones normal definition of shyness. In every other aspect of her life she was anything but shy. She was outspoken and opinionated on almost all subjects, from Sports to the Environment.
When Kevin asked her about her reluctance, she said it was personal. She couldn't talk about it. He suspected that it was an old fashioned sense of propriety that had been ingrained into her by her mother, when she was very young, though she denied it.
Maybe, he thought, the marriage proposal he gave her a week ago would make her see how serious he was about their relationship. At that time he had said that he loved her more than anything else in the world.
Tears formed in her eyes. Amanda said that she loved him too. As always, whenever she professed her love, there was a catch in her voice. As if an unspoken "but" followed her profession. She said that she was overwhelmed, that it had been so sudden. She wanted time to think on it. She'd let him know her decision in a week.
The day before, Amanda had called Kevin and asked for him to come out to her estate the next day. There was something she wanted to show him.
As she got close, Kevin snapped out of his thoughts. He quickly got out, before she reached it.
"Hello Kevin," she said without inflection.
"Hi honey," he said, and took her in his arms.
Amanda hugged him stiffly, but turned her head away when he tried to kiss her.
Not a good sign, he thought.
"So, I guess the answer is 'no'," he said trying, unsuccessfully, to make it sound conversational.
Amanda pulled herself away, and looked off toward the giant cottonwood that dwarfed her house. "Kevin, I can't marry you," she said with a forced stiffness.
Kevin grabbed her arm, pulling her around so she'd have to meet his eyes. "But why?" he pleaded. "It can't be because you don't love me. I know you do. Is there another man? Is it something religious? Please tell me!"
The tears that Amanda had sworn to control came pouring out. "Please, you're making this so difficult. I love you. I really do. But I can't marry you. I can't marry anyone!" She ran away from Kevin, toward the gate.
"But why?" said Kevin, with almost a whine in his voice. Careful Kevin, he lectured himself. If you push her too hard you may lose her forever.
Amanda stopped her flight. She still couldn't meet his eyes. Instead, she looked away toward the house and tree. She spoke with such a soft voice, he could barely hear her. "If I told you, you'd think I was crazy."
Kevin clenched his hands in frustration. His love was being tortured by some predicament she can't reveal. If only she would confide in him.
The young lawyer stopped dead in his tracks. "If you can't tell me, show me. I know it has something to do with this land."
Amanda turned to Kevin and really looked him for the first time since he arrived. "That's what I had planned to do. That's why I invited you. You deserve it. I never should have lead you on like I did."
The young woman motioned to her suitor. "Follow me."