Ben Gwin lives in Pittsburgh with his daughter Rosalie. He received his MFA from Chatham University where he earned the 2011 Best Thesis in Fiction Award for his work, “Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton,” a novel he is hard at work revising.
When Roy pulled into his old driveway with Paige, the swing set was gone. An inflatable pink castle the size of a garage and a pen with a pony in what looked like a party hat stood in its place, next to the dying pear tree. Upon closer inspection, the pony had a horn like a miniature unicorn. Paige’s favorite.
“Unbelievable,” Roy said.
“Daddy, a unicorn!”
Roy jerked the wheel to the right to avoid the birdbath on the island in the middle of the driveway. “Your mom loves you,” he said, thinking his trip to the children’s museum was suddenly worthless and that from then on, every time he picked up Paige he’d be pulling her away from her magical kingdom in unicorn land. How was he supposed to compete with Chaz and Jane’s ability to provide his daughter with mythological creatures? Especially after he’d gone to great lengths to explain why nobody gets to have a unicorn because they are pretend. They’d made him a liar.
“Lemme out, lemme out, lemme out.” Paige banged her heels against the seat. Her cheeks streaked with blue from the popsicles he gave her after breakfast.
Roy pulled around the island and parked. He looked back at Paige. “OK, sweetie. Did you have fun this weekend? Did you have fun at the museum?”
“Lemme out, lemme out!” Roy unbuckled Paige and set her free to bounce in her castle and ride her unicorn. She ran towards the castle, shouting, “Unicorn, unicorn!” leaving her backpack in the car.
His house used to be green with white trim. Now it was white with red trim that looked like blood when the sun hit it. Jane and a shirtless Chaz stood at the bottom of the front steps, holding each other and looking as smug as ever.
Bent over the seat, Roy grabbed the backpack and compared the stylized white unicorn on the front pocket to the deformed pony grazing in the spot where he used to practice his short game when he couldn’t sleep. If I can make a thirty-yard flop shot in the dark, from the long grass into the birdbath, I can make it in the final round of the Open. He’d explained this to Jane when she bitched about divots in the lawn and the chips in the side of the birdbath. But it was never about the lawn or the cracks in the marble. And it was never about the half-empty pop cans he left on the counter or his affinity for pears and the paraphernalia of professional sports teams that no longer existed.
Roy banged his head when he emerged with the backpack. “Fuck,” he said and slammed the door. Jane’s face twisted. He looked over at Paige, to see if his profanity registered. It had not. She was running in wide figure eights around the castle and pony.
Roy smiled and held the backpack before him like a peace offering as he started up the walkway towards the porch. “Hi,” he said. He rubbed his head and stared past Jane and Chaz at the railing bisecting the steps as if it would steady him on sight. Between the top and bottom rails his family name, Winter, was spelled out in elegant script. Chaz and Jane had stripped the black lacquer from the railing and painted it gold.
“We had a great time at the museum,” Roy said and gripped the plastic strap. There was nothing in the bag but one of Paige’s socks, two DVDs she refused to watch because they didn’t feature unicorns, and a tube of SPF 110.
Jane waited until Roy was within arms length and bit Chaz on the shoulder; Roy felt a twinge where her teeth used to sink into his clavicle, then a similar current through his arm and his fingers felt numb. Up close Roy saw bite marks and scratches all over Chaz’s chest and shoulders.
“Watch your language,” Jane said and took the backpack.
“Relax,” Roy said. “She didn’t hear.” He watched sweat bead on the space between Jane’s nose and upper lip.
“That’s not the point,” Jane said. “And why is she so pale? She looks like a little blond ghost.”
“Sure. Fine. Sorry. You’re right.” Roy looked away, and saw Jane’s friend Haley crawl out of the castle. Her black hair fanned out on the open drawbridge, arms stretching towards the ground.
“Aunt Haley, I got a unicorn!” Paige grabbed one of Haley’s hands and pulled.
Roy shuffled his feet and listened to his car idle behind him. “So, Haley’s back,” Roy said. “Picking up right where she left off.” Last he’d heard, Haley was hooked on methadone and functionally homeless in Boulder.
Near the castle, Haley enlisted Paige’s help looking for her pants.
Jane said, “Haley loves the outdoors so she slept outside. She said she’d take care of the unicorn for free. You know how much she’s saving us?” Jane fingered the strap of her sundress, the blue one covered in bumblebees that Paige liked so much. She hadn’t worn it in years.
“What happened to the swing set?” Roy asked.
Jane put the backpack between her knees and tied her hair into a ponytail, Canary yellow like the crayon and the same as Paige. “We used it to make the Unicorn Hut.” She nodded towards the side yard.
“You mean pony,” Roy said. “I don’t know if you should tell her it’s a unicorn.”
“I had the horn surgically implanted,” said Chaz. “So it really is a unicorn. I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds.” He wore giant sunglasses and Roy’s Atlanta Thrashers gym shorts. “Paige is a special girl. We had her tested, and she’s off the charts. A genius. Fostering that is my number one priority, Roy, I just want you to know that.”
“Paige is going to grow up believing in unicorns. And he’s wearing my shorts.” Roy raised his voice more than he wanted. He felt a pain in his lungs.
“Always so concerned about your shorts.” Jane looked into the backpack and made a face of confusion and disapproval.
Chaz stepped between Roy and Jane. “Listen, Roy, my brother, we’re all on the same side here. There’s nothing wrong with growing up in non-traditional home with a unicorn-friendly atmosphere. Kids who grow up in normal households turn out messed up all the time. At least we will be fostering imagination and creativity. Something that maybe you don’t know much about.” He backed away into the lawn near the fence and stretched, bending down to touch his toes.
“Creativity? Didn’t you see the shot I hit out of the trees at Pinehurst where I turned my club over, swung lefty and punched out to the fringe?” Since the divorce, Roy’s golf career had actually taken off. He couldn’t explain it and often felt guilty for his success.
“If you’re going to act like a child, I think you should go,” Jane said.
Roy stood and watched Paige skipping in circles around the pen. Haley crawled behind her in a T-shirt and panties, hair like crow feathers clipping the grass, she arched her back for a long second. Roy looked away.
Chaz said, “Saw you missed the cut last weekend, my brother. What’s up with that?”
“Bad shot at a bad time. Happens,” Roy said. He chewed on the skin around his thumbnail, and squinted into the sun cutting through the trees creating a faint rainbow when it picked up the water falling from the birdbath.
“Foooooound them, Aunt Haley. Aunt Haley, here are your pants. Let’s play with my unicorn now. OK?” Paige held a pair of jeans over her shoulders.
“Sure, sweet thing,” Haley said.
Roy watched Haley step into her jeans. She waved, smiled and watched him for a moment. Even at her worst, Haley was better looking than Jane, whose weight had fluctuated like mad since Roy met her. For the last year of their marriage, Jane refused to take off any more clothing than one pant leg during sex. Sometimes she just pulled her sweats down to her knees and looked at the ceiling while Roy haplessly went at it.
Something about the way Jane looked today, though, in the slight blue dress covered in bees, brought the tightness back into Roy’s lungs.
“Jane, you’ve lost weight,” Roy said.
“Yes, Roy, I have,” she said and did a half-pirouette. “And you were fifteen minutes late. If you keep showing up late, we’ll have to get the courts involved.”
“And then what?” Roy asked and waved his hand, “You get the house?”
“I’m going to hit up the castle. Do some bouncing,” Chaz said. “It’s been great for my songwriting. I spend a solid fifteen-to-twenty in there trying to find different rhythms. When I sit down to compose afterwards, the music just flows.” He stretched his quads, pulling one leg up behind him then the other.
Roy heard Paige tell Haley, “I’m going to name my unicorn, Paige Haley Princess Winter!”
“I’m leaving,” Roy said, but he didn’t move.
Chaz stopped stretching. He put a hand on Roy’s shoulder. “Roy, my brother, why don’t you stick around for a bit and play with your daughter, shoot the bull. Whatever. I’ll have Haley fix us some Long Islands. We’re all adults. We can co-exist in this space for the good of Paige, right? So she might enjoy the company of all these wonderful grown-up people who care about her,” Chaz said.
Jane squinted then opened her eyes wide and said, “You’re right. Where are my manners? Roy, please feel free.” She looked at him with pity.
Roy chipped flakes of paint from the railing. He considered sticking around. But he looked at Haley squatting to tie Paige’s shoe and Chaz covered in bite marks, limbering-up in the last bit of his lawn and Jane’s condescending face, and he thought about how the the last four nights exhausted him, how he couldn’t think straight, couldn’t get the sounds of Muppets out of his head, how he made his girlfriend wait until Paige was asleep to sneak back inside at night and in the morning leave before she woke, the numbness crept back into his hands, his chest fluttered and he felt dizzy.
“Can’t,” Roy said. “Meeting my swing coach. Next time maybe.” He grabbed the railing for balance. It gave slightly. “But you know what? I’m taking this back.”
“I don’t follow,” Chaz said.
Roy squatted and grabbed the railing by the W and the T, worked the frame back and forth. He put his full weight against it. Dust and small chunks of cement fell from the steps, but it wouldn’t give more than a few inches. If he accomplished nothing else during his marriage, he’d properly installed the railing.
“Cut that out, Roy,” Chaz said. You’ll ruin the aesthetic of our entranceway.”
“Fuck your aesthetic.”
“Roy,” Jane said, “don’t embarrass my daughter any further.”
Roy stopped and looked at the red marks on his palms and the gold shavings between his fingers and under his nails. Sweat dripped into his eyes and it burned. He wiped his hands on his shirt and exhaled.
“Has Haley turned the tool shed into a meth lab yet?” Roy asked and walked around the side of the house, thinking it quite possible she had.
The sickness he felt reminded him of the time he got sun poisoning as a child. For weeks he slept on his stomach, dark red and blistered. That summer, during those weeks, Roy spent long hours sitting gingerly in a plastic brown lawn chair and watching his father weld the railing in the garage. Like tiny comets the sparks burst and died in the motor oil stains on the floor. After the railing was assembled, Roy and his dad stained it in the cool dark safety of the basement.
After ten minutes rummaging through the shed, Roy returned with the sledgehammer.
“Don’t you dare,” Jane said.
“Watch your eyes,” Roy said and took aim.
Chaz sat with his feet together and stretched his groin by pushing his knees to the ground with his elbows. “Roy, my brother, reconsider. I’ll get you a new railing for your condo. Top of the line.”
“No. I want this railing.”
Roy swung hard. Jane and Chaz scurried a few steps back and held each other by the fence. The sledgehammer hit the front steps where the metal sank into the brick.
“Daddy, what are you doing?” Paige yelled.
Roy paused; Haley and Paige stopped brushing the Unicorn—all three sets of eyes looked uncertain and right at him.
Chaz said, “Your daddy’s helping us fix the porch, honey.”
Roy put everything he had behind the next swing. A piece of brick flew up and hit him in the cheek. His hands burned and blistered and he hammered until the railing fell into the flowerbed.
“Paige loves those flowers you just killed,” Jane said.
Roy knelt over the twisted bars. Up close the letters looked crooked and warped. He realized he had nowhere to put it in his new place. “See,” Roy said, “that wasn’t so bad.”
“My brother, enjoy your railing.” Chaz shook out his legs, took four great leaps and did a forward roll into the castle.
Roy dropped the railing by the car and crouched by the birdbath, the breeze carried a fine mist over him.
With Jane approaching, Roy dumped the railing in the trunk. The backend sunk and scraped the ground and the latch snapped off and rattled on the blacktop. Roy picked it up and put it in his pocket. It felt greasy and surprisingly heavy.
“What, Jane?” he asked.
Jane hit Roy in the arm with the backpack. “Look how happy she is with Haley and Paige Haley Princess Winter. Why can’t you share in her joy?”
Paige did look happy. Stroking the unicorn’s mane and feeding it a carrot while Haley looked for the saddle.
“See you next Thursday at noon,” Roy said and wiped his face with the back of his arm, leaving a glittery-black and bleeding smudge on his face.
“Paige, I love you,” Roy said and waved goodbye.
“Love you too,” Paige said. With both hands she waved back then turned her attention to more pressing matters.
“You never cease to disappoint me, Roy,” Jane said and walked over to the pen where Haley had strapped a pink saddle with streamers onto the unicorn.
Roy thought the poor animal must be confused, like it was trying to come to terms with the horn poking out of it’s head. It stared at him, looking ashamed and docile. Roy drove away with the muffler scraping the road and sparks flying. The open trunk blocked his view.