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The Unicorn in the Woods

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Estimated reading time — 17 minutes

We all have that friend who we wish we could have done more for. Who we wish could have done better. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. See, it all goes back to my friend Clark, and the horror we both encountered six years ago.

Clark and I grew up together, in the neighborhoods of suburban Vancouver, in Western Canada. It was an ideal existence, really. We were in middle class homes, we had everything we needed – and wanted, really – and we were happy.

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But about me and Clark. My life from childhood to late adolescence is inextricably linked to Clark, and the course my life would take for years afterward – even to now – would be forever influenced by him, as we’ll see. I first met him when he moved in next door, when I was six. I remember walking outside my house to see the moving trucks show up, and I watched them and the people in them work – slightly confused. I mean, come on, I was six. Then, I gradually noticed someone in particular – a kid, shaggy blonde hair, big glasses, and he looked to be about my age. Me, always up for meeting a new friend, sauntered over to him.

“Hi!” I said, friendly and energetically.

The kid looked me up and down, then – nervously, shyly – responded. “Hi.”

“I’m Jeremy, what’s your name?”

“Clark.” His voice was quiet, subdued.

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I remember smiling, nakedly showing off a gap in the top row of my teeth. “I have a Super Nintendo, and all the best games. Do you wanna come over and play them with me?”

His eyes widened in a clear expression of interest. “Yeah!” he said excitedly. “But,” he said hesitantly, “I’ll have to ask my Mom and Dad.”

“Okay! I’ll be waiting right here!” I replied, still smiling.

He ran off to his Mom and Dad, who had just stepped out of their new home, talked to them, and later we were in my room, playing together. The rest was history.

Soon we became inseparable. We just clicked – we saw in each other that we were kindred spirits, I guess, even at that young age. Like I said, inseparable. Wherever one of us was, the other was there too. At school, on the playground, in the cafeteria, it was always Jeremy and Clark. The two of us. To be honest with you, that’s the way both of us thought it’d ever be. We never expected it to change.

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Then when we were fourteen, Clark’s dad killed himself.

No one saw it coming. No one. One day, everything was fine and Clark’s dad was all smiles, talking about his plans for the future and how he was going to really shake things up at the business he was an executive of. Then, the next, Clark’s mother found her husband hanging by a noose in the garage.

It… it fucked Clark up. That’s the most honest and simple way to put it. I remember sitting with Clark outside the funeral home where the memorial had taken place. He was quiet. He was so, so quiet that whole day. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. So I just sat there, hoping to lend him quiet support. Finally, he spoke.

“Jeremy, why wasn’t I enough for him to want to stay alive?” His voice was small, quiet, and sad. He didn’t even look up when he said it.

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I don’t even remember how I answered that question. But… can you imagine carrying that burden inside yourself? At fourteen?

That’s when things started to go south for Clark. He started to isolate himself more, close himself off. Even from me.

Then, well, I guess the pain got to him. His mother was too busy trying to hold herself together, let alone look into her son, so he sought refuge in drugs. First it was the weed, which I found off-putting enough, but whatever. Then he moved up to pills. I took him aside one day, when we were sixteen. I was worried about his cutting class, his distancing himself from me, and his near constant pill-popping.

“Dude, I’m worried for you. You don’t need that shit. Come on.” I was begging and pleading with him. I didn’t wanna see him destroy himself. I loved him like a brother – he practically was my brother, just not by blood. I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing. I couldn’t.

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How he responded shocked me. He just stared at me for a moment, and then said, “I don’t really give a shit what you think of me and my choices. So how about you do me a favor and fuck off about it.” Then he turned and walked away.

And that was it. The end of our friendship. What more can be said? I dedicated myself to my studies, trying to drown the hurt I felt inside in my schoolbooks. Clark, well, he deteriorated. By the time he was seventeen, he was habitually using cocaine and had been kicked out of school. I lost touch with him then. Until I graduated university.

I had gone off to Simon Fraser University to study History, with the ultimate aim of eventually applying to Law School. It was about four months after I graduated, at the age of 22, while I was working as a policy analyst at a Vancouver-based think tank, that I got word on how Clark was doing.

An old girlfriend of mine who was close to both of us in high school sent me a message over Facebook. She’d seen Clark shooting up heroin, homeless, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – Canada’s worst ghetto. Right away, I knew I had to intervene.

Long story short, I found him. A few days after I got the Facebook message, Clark and I were sitting across from each other in a downtown McDonald’s. He looked like shit. All these blotches and sores all over his face, his clothes were ripped and torn and dirty as fuck, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days. I felt like I wanted to burst out crying, it hurt so much seeing him like this.

Finally, I spoke. “Clark, look. You were my best friend. I will do whatever it takes to help you get back on your feet. I’ll walk right in with you to rehab, every step of th-”

“I’m not going to rehab.” His voice was quick, but also calm – a lazy sort of calm. He was lazily and casually looking over the table we were sitting at and then at our surroundings. As I watched him just be so fucking nonchalant about this, I started to get angry. Really angry. This little bastard was three-quarters of the way toward the morgue and he was fine with it?!

“Clark,” I said, my voice measured and barely contained, “You are at rock bottom. You need to get help.”

“Rock bottom?” he said, as if I had just woken him up from a comfortable sleep. Shrugging, he said, “I don’t feel like it. I think I’m doing just fine, all things considered.”

“Clark, what the fuck is wrong with you?” I finally snapped at him, causing everyone in the restaurant to glance over at us. Looking around, I lowered my voice but still spoke sharply. “Your life is a fucking mess and you are tearing apart everyone that cares about you.” I paused, then spoke softly. “Please. I love you, just let me help.”

He laughed, then looked at me scornfully. “Look, I don’t need you judging me and my life.” He started to get up. “When I need you, I’ll call you.” Then, he turned and walked out of the restaurant.

As for me, I went home, sat on my couch and cried. My best friend was going to die, and there was nothing I could do about it.

What else was there to do? I went to work, made money, indulged in my interests and passions, and generally just lived my life. While I had been planning to apply to law school as soon as possible when I graduated, I found that I kept putting it off. I’d continue doing that, at this point and later on, for a variety of reasons that I’ll get into later. Life went pretty well for me. I fell in love, actually, and had a kind of whirlwind romance with a German stewardess who I met at the airport, but that ended about six months after I last parted ways with Clark. It was a month after that, as I was coming out of the despair of the end of that relationship that I ran into Clark again. That was where everything really began.

I was walking down Granville Street to get to one of my favorite crépe places, one of the best little spots in town. As I was walking, I noticed someone familiar looking. He was dressed in a clean outfit of black dress pants, a white button-up shirt, and carrying a leather briefcase. His hair was cut short, though looked as if it was naturally shaggy, and… God, it was Clark!

I quickly approached him, and a few moments into my approach he noticed me and lit up in a bright smile. When we got close enough we both spontaneously hugged each other, laughing as we did so. Pulling back, I got a good look at him. He looked clean – fresh face, well-groomed. He looked like he had it together.

Still smiling, I finally found it in me to say something. “Clark… Jesus, Clark, how have you been? What are you doing these days?”

He laughed, and then responded cheerfully. “Well, first off, I’m seven months clean, and I’m working at this internet provider doing grunt office work. Can’t complain!”

“Seven months clean!” I exclaimed. “I’m so happy for you!”

“Thanks!” he said, beaming. “Look, where you off too? We can sit down and talk.”

We ended up in the crépe place eating as we caught up. I was listening to him explain how he finally got on the path to sobriety.

“Well,” he said, in between bites of his strawberry jam crépe, “I mean, I acted so nonchalant when you confronted me, but inside I was just so fucked up. That night, actually, I went down into this forested area in the suburbs – you know, where you and I used to go explore when we were thirteen -” I nodded at this, “- and had a rope, ready to kill myself and everything. And then…” His face just… it’s almost as if it started glowing, he adopted a look so serene and happy.

After a moment, I prodded him. “…And? And what?”

“Then,” he said, his voice utterly serene and calm and blissful, “I saw it. This… magical beast.” He refocused on me, and started to explain. “It was pitch dark in the forest, and I’m trying to tie this knot while I’m sobbing my eyes out. And then this brilliant white light appears out of nowhere, and I’m trying to focus on it, right, and then it faded enough for me to make out what it was… and it was this shining, glowing white horse, with this single horn coming out of its head that must have been made of crystal.” I heard his voice go quieter and more solemn as he continued. “And as I’m looking at it, I just feel so at peace, y’know? So calm, good, and full of love and joy. Like anything was possible. Like I could do anything. And I did! I went straight home to where I was staying, the next day I started to get myself into a program, and here I am, seven months clean.” As he was saying this, his eyes were glazed over with this dreamy look in them.

I was… well, I didn’t know what to think. Obviously it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. So I decided to broach the subject slightly.

“Clark, uh, maybe… I mean. Okay. Maybe it was just a hallucination, or something? Have you considered that?” I was speaking quietly, softly, gently, not wanting to piss him off.

He just stared at me, and then his face morphed into a look of offense. “No, of course not. It wasn’t a hallucination. It was real! I mean… look at me, Jeremy! Compare how I am now to how I was when we last saw each other!”

I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say. He continued talking.

“Look. I don’t expect you to be on-board with what I saw, but it happened. You need to at least admit that there’s things in the world that can’t really be explained.”

I shrugged and nodded, and mumbled some words about how that’s a reasonable perspective. I mean, this was fucking stupid, of course, but it did motivate him, somehow, to get clean. Who was I to argue with that? Besides, I figured it’d probably go away sooner or later. Just fade out of his mind and he’d get into a normal mental state.

I was wrong.

We started meeting regularly, just catching up, trying to reboot our friendship. I was happy as hell about having this second chance, and hopeful that this would really be a new beginning for him. But… he kept going back to the unicorn. We’d meet, and eventually, sooner or later, he’d bring the conversation back to the unicorn. How it looked, where it was, where it was from, what it was doing in the woods, all sorts of things.

“I mean, how could an animal like that even exist and not even be discovered by anyone?” He gushed while eating french fries at my place one night. Gesturing excitedly with his hands, he said, “Look, I mean – it’s amazing! What other kinds of beings like that could be out there?”

“Buddy,” I interjected, getting exasperated with this. This was, like, the twentieth time he’d brought up that damned unicorn. I was really starting to believe he was getting obsessed. “Look, I don’t think it’s that important or necessary to obsess over things like this. I mean, sure, it’s amazing and unique and all, and it did do great things for you, but in the end, it just passed through your life. That’s it. Let it go.”

He stopped talking, then after a moment shook his head impatiently. “You just don’t understand,” he muttered. I started to protest and try to explain to him why he needed to let this go, but he abruptly got up and said he had to go – had to get an early night for work the next day. I could tell he wasn’t gonna discuss the matter any further, so I let him go.

A few days later, I called him to try and arrange a night out at the pub for both of us. He… seemed evasive.

“Er, yeah, that’s great, but… I mean, I got stuff I got to attend to,” he remarked over the phone, laughing nervously.

“What kind of stuff?” I asked, genuinely curious. Years ago, I always loved hearing about his personal projects.

“Just stuff,” he said nonchalantly. “I’ll tell you about it all sometime,” he added.

Shrugging, I said that he could contact me later, and he said he would and he hung up.

So, I went about my days – work, home, Netflix, bed. At this point in my life I had started to seriously investigate law schools to apply to, while also debating whether or not I should give it up to pursue another dream I’d been nursing for the past couple months – that of journalism. I’d written a few articles for the campus paper when I was in undergrad, but I didn’t think much of it as a career. But lately, after becoming more and more immersed in the drudgery of my day job, while also realizing that I might not be quite cut out for a career in law… well, I was starting to reconsider.

So, I spent the next couple of weeks after work both investigating law schools and seeing what publications in Vancouver – and around the country – might be hiring for writers. I kind of lost track of the days doing this, getting information, and by the time I’d finally noticed that Clark hadn’t contacted me at all, it was two weeks later. So I called him.

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He picked up the phone sounding like he was out of breath. “Clark, buddy?” I said.

He was panting, and I could hear traffic in the background, so he was clearly outside and on the move. “Yeah, what?” he said abruptly.

“Clark, I haven’t heard from you in awhile. What’s up?” I was getting slightly disturbed by the context of the call, though – him out of contact, now in a harried state.

“Look, I’m fine, I-I just need to do some stuff, alright?” Now I was suspicious. What was going on? Before I could ask, he hung up on me. So, I got dressed, and went over to his place to wait him out.

He showed up four hours later, in the late evening. He was slightly unkempt, and looked tired. As he started to walk up the steps to the front door of his apartment building, he spotted me and his eyes went wide with surprise.

“Oh! Hey buddy,” he said in a forced-casual manner.

I stepped forward. “Clark, come on. Tell me what’s going on.” He looked down, and then glanced around us as I waited for him to talk. I could tell he was struggling with whether or not to let me in on what was going on. On whether or not he could trust me. Finally, he judged right.

He looked at me, his eyes now wide with barely contained excitement. “Jeremy,” he said, a smile slowly forming on his face, “I’m tracking it.”

I paused. “Tracking what?” I asked flatly.

“What do you think! The unicorn!” Now he was practically shaking with excitement. He continued. “I need to see it again, Jeremy. I need to!” He practically rasped the word ‘need’. As for me, at this point, I was just pissed off.

“Come on, Clark!” I snapped at him loudly. I turned around, and in frustration ran my hand through my hair, then turned back around to face him. “This is garbage, you know that? I didn’t wanna tell you before, because I didn’t wanna hurt your feelings, but it’s fucking bullshit and you need to hear that. It’s not fucking real and there is no fucking unicorn.” By this point I was yelling. He stared at me in shock, unable to say anything, as I ranted.

“Maybe it’s your addictive personality, or maybe it’s a mental health problem, I dunno. But this needs to end, and it needs to end now.” I said it forcefully, and I meant it.

He just looked down at his feet for a few moments, then back up at me. “You’re right, Jeremy,” he said quietly. “You’re right. I’ll put it away.”

I nodded. “Good. Now, let’s get you inside. You look cold.” We got inside, went into his place, and had some tea. We chatted over our work lives for the next hour, and then I went home.

We met regularly for the next while, like we usually did. But I noticed odd changes in him. Small, at first, but then increasing in frequency and intensity. He looked more unkempt than usual, more often than not. He also started to look wired and jumpy. Like this one time we were chatting over lunch. I was eating, but as I was talking to him, he kept glancing around himself, his eyes wide open, as if he was terrified someone was gonna jump him any moment. I kept snapping his attention back to me, and he kept apologizing, but I could tell something was wrong. So, I went there.

“Are you using again?” I asked. He looked genuinely shocked at me asking this, shaking his head vigorously. “No, no, no way. No way I’d ever go back to that.”

“Okay, because you seem pretty jumpy. Why are you so wired?”

He just shrugged and shook his head a bit. “Dunno. I guess I haven’t been getting that much sleep.”

“Well, you gotta take care of that, y’know?” He nodded and muttered something about how I was right. We chatted some more, then we parted ways for the day.

But, we kept meeting, and this same stuff kept happening more often. He’d look more and more unkempt, he’d start mumbling about nothing in the middle of our conversations. He’d keep looking off into space and his eyes going wide as if he was seeing something that no one else saw, and he’d start giggling to himself out of nowhere. The more I pressed him on it, the more he denied he was using. Finally, I’d had enough. It all came to a head when I cornered him as he got home one evening.

“You’re using again, I fucking know you are.” My voice was forceful and pointed. He started to protest, but I wouldn’t let him. “You’re going back to rehab. Tonight. I’m taking you.”

He just looked at me, an expression of pure angst fixed on his face. Finally, he looked down at his feet, then back at me.

“I haven’t been using,” he said quietly, “I swear, that’s the honest-to-God truth. But, it’s something else.” He paused, unsure of if to continue or not, but then did. “I never gave up on the unicorn. I’ve still been trying to track it down.”

I put my hand to my face. “Jesus fucking Christ, Clark,” I muttered.

“But it’s not what you think!” he protested, putting his hands up. “It’s, it’s, how do I explain it?” He lowered his voice into a sharp whisper as he leaned in. “It’s speaking to me. I’m seeing it, everywhere! I mean, I know it’s not there, but it’s leading me to it!” His eyes were wild now, crazed. Then he said, “Here, I’ll show you. Come upstairs with me.” I started to protest, but he kept… he just kept fucking insisting, and I couldn’t say no. I just couldn’t.

He unlocked his door and we walked into his apartment, and… it was a fucking horror show. Garbage bags piled on top of each other that hadn’t been taken out, and the walls of the hallways, and then that of his bedroom, covered with… with… this fucking network of printed out and scribbled out pages of paper. Photographs. Newspaper clippings. It was utterly insane.

He began pacing around his bedroom, pointing to the various pieces of paper. “Here, and here, it all connects, see, and this to this… Jeremy, it makes so much sense! Can’t you see?!” He looked at me with this crazed smile.

I just asked him, emotionlessly, “Clark, how do you have time for all this when you have to work?”

He nonchalantly shook his head. “Oh, I don’t have to go to work anymore. They fired me.” He spoke as if he were describing the fucking weather.

“They fired you?” I yelled. “What the fuck? How will you live?”

He shrugged and started to giggle. “I’ll manage, bro. I always do.”

That’s when I realized I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t go through this with him, not again. Not after everything. I was done.

“Goodbye, Clark,” I said softly, and turned to leave. As I walked out of the bedroom, and then out of the apartment, he called out after me, yelling as I left. “You’ll see, Jeremy! You’ll see! I’ll find it and then EVERYTHING will change! YOU’LL SEE!”

I got home, but couldn’t sleep. I knew I needed to let him go. I knew I did. But… goddammit, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. That’s what led me to make the decision I made when he called, which led to everything else.

I was laying in bed, staring up at the ceiling when he called. It was two in the morning.

“Jeremy!” he whispered as I heard him moving quickly in the background, sounds of branches and leaves crunching as he went. He was apparently in a forest of some kind?

“Clark, where are you?” I asked. I was genuinely concerned.

“Jeremy, I’ve cornered it! I’ve got it in my sights! You need to come! Please, you need to come!”

I thought it over in silence for a few moments. I couldn’t let him go, I realized. I needed to pull him back from the brink. I answered him, “Tell me where you are and stay there. I’m on my way.” He relayed his location to me and we hung up. I got dressed and drove up to that area – the forest in suburban Vancouver where we’d explored as kids – as fast as I could. I needed to get to him, needed to make sense of this, of what was happening to him.

I made it to him relatively shortly after I parked. He was crouched behind a tree, looking into a clearing. As I knelt down beside him, he looked over at me with that same crazed smile.

“It said you needed to be here.”

I just stared at him. “What?”

“It said it wouldn’t come until you were here. And now…”

As he spoke, a blinding white light appeared, forcing our eyes shut. Then, after a few moments, it faded, and we cracked our eyes open just a bit. I… oh my God, I saw it. I actually saw it. Standing there in the clearing, clear and majestic, lighting the entire forest as if it were day, was the unicorn. Shining and glowing, and pure white with a horn that looked like it was made of crystal, and dark blue eyes. It was beautiful. It – seemingly nonchalantly – stomped on the ground with a hoof. As I stared at it, I felt so much. I felt love, joy, peace, all of those to an extent I’d never felt before. Then, as we stared, it looked at us.

Clark ran out into the clearing before I could stop him, collapsing to his knees with a wild smile on his face. Stretching his arms out, he spoke urgently and eagerly. “Please, take me with you. Wherever you live, take me with you, please!”

The unicorn just stared at him. Then something odd started to happen. Clark started to cry out in pain. I got up and slowly, hesitantly and carefully, stepped toward him, and I saw Clark turn around – a look of anguish fixed to his face – to reveal blood gushing down his face from the sides of his eyes. Then… then Clark started screaming and fell to the ground, wide and deep gashes on his arms and hands ripping open of their own accord, blood pouring out of them. Forcing himself up in the midst of the agony, Clark was back on his knees, facing the unicorn again – presumably begging for relief. But then, as I stood transfixed watching all this, in my horror unable to move or speak, I heard his bones crack inside of him, and then him screaming in response. Right after that, a jagged shard of bone thrust itself out of where his rib cage was, causing him to whimper in even more pain. Then… then something happened that ended it. There was more cracking of bones – so much more – and after a few moments, broken off chunks off bone stabbed their way out of his chest, where his heart was. Immediately, he fell over dead. Then something happened that I still have a hard time believing. The ground, it just sort of opened up, and he sunk deeper and deeper into the recess that was forming beneath him. Then the ground sort of re-formed over him, leaving no trace he’d ever been there.

I was watching this with a sensation that to this day fills me with horror. I still felt the love, joy and peace from the unicorn as I watched Clark die. It mixed in with the sheer horror and fear I felt as it all happened, like ink mixing in with a bowl of clear water. I’ll never be able to properly describe it.

Finally, the unicorn looked at me. And as it looked at me, I heard it speak to me, in my mind. I’ll never forget its words as long as I live.

“You have borne witness. Return from whence you came – more may yet be required of you.” With that, it turned and ran off, the glow and shine from it quickly fading into darkness.

I went home, utterly shaken. I spent the next two hours sobbing viciously over Clark. I wanted to die, having witnessed all that. But I had to live. I had to keep going. So, the next day, I pulled myself together and went to work. I didn’t report what happened to the police – who would believe me? But they did question me over his disappearance in the days to come. They even investigated me as a person of interest in relation to it. But they had no evidence to pin anything on me, so the file was closed.

As a result of the police attention and how difficult I knew it’d make my life in Vancouver, I quit my policy analyst job and moved to Halifax, where I secured a job as a journalist with a minor newspaper. I met a girl. I got married. I had kids. Now my son and daughter are three and two, respectively, and we do tons of stuff together – them, me and their mom. But I steer clear of forests. But every now and then, whenever I’m passing one at night – in my car or on my bike – I see, just barely out of the corner of my eye, a faint glow, running fast like a horse.


Credit: Malcolm Teller (FacebookTwitterReddit)

Publisher’s Note: The author requests that anyone who desires to narrate, perform, or adapt this story to any other format, or feature it on a YouTube channel, podcast, or other platform, contact them for permission before doing so. Use of the author’s work without this permission is strictly prohibited. You may reach the author here. Thank you!

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