Kudzu Hill

Seven-year-old Zeke Moore sat at the dining room table, finishing a bowl of Easy Mac. His hair was the color of the cheese sauce that splotched his Spiderman T-shirt, and his eyes that of his blue jeans--before he had gone outside to play. His bare feet kicked to a syncopated beat inches above the floor as he pulled the spoon out of his mouth.

"There's a unicorn living on Kudzu Hill," he said.

Past a wide, doorless arch, five-year-old Coky sat on the living room carpet, stained with red and blue Kool-aid and littered with Legos. She had pulled her light brown hair into a pony tail by herself that morning and dressed herself in jean shorts and a dark purple tank top. Coky looked up from the house she was building and stared at her brother.

"No way"

"Yes way. Mom showed me on our way back from the dentist." Zeke spooned the last bit of macaroni into his mouth, and slid out of the chair.

Coky crossed her arms. "How come I didn't see it?"

"You were asleep in the backseat."

It had been a twenty minute drive home from the dentist that morning. Zeke chattered to his mother while her eyelids drooped.

"How was work, Mom?" He strained against the seat belt to tie his shoelace. "Did you meet the rat again?"

Zeke and Coky's mother, Wendy Moore, worked third shift at the Kangaroo convenience store two blocks from home, and at least once a week, she would tell them of some bizarre encounter. Once she said that their grandfather came inside to pay for the gas he had pumped, asked her for a carton of Camels, paid, and left without another word. Their grandfather had been dead for six years. Zeke wondered how a ghost would be able to smoke since ghosts are kind of like smoke themselves, but he figured that maybe that's what keeps ghosts being ghosts. Maybe if they didn't smoke, they would come apart the way clouds sometimes do, and they wouldn't be ghosts anymore.

Then there was the story about God and the radio. Wendy had been listening to "I Love This Bar" when the radio began to sizzle with static. It cleared up after a few seconds, but instead of Toby Keith's singing, the box channeled God's voice. And God said, "I don't like McDonald's. Last time I ate there, I was downing Pepto for two days." Wendy never took them back to McDonald's, and Zeke and Coky stayed mad at God for a long time.

Her latest encounter was the rat in the storage closet. She said it had the plague, and she tried to kill it with a broom that was leaning against the wall, but the rat escaped.

"No, honey," Wendy said, covering a yawn with her hand, "the rat's still hiding. But don't worry. Mommy will get it."

Zeke nodded and clicked his grass-stained Wal-Mart shoes together.

She looked out the window and smiled. "Did I tell you what I saw in Kudzu Hill last night?"

Swallowing the mash of cheesy noodles, Zeke sat down beside his sister and grimaced. He raked his hand under his jeans, sending a pointy red block tumbling across the carpet. "There is a unicorn, and Mom says it's raising the annichrise."

Coky's hands returned to the Lego house. "What's an annichrise?"

"I don't know. It's probably one of those girls that ride unicorns." Zeke picked up a yellow block and stuck it onto the house.

"That doesn't go there! It won't be a red house if you put a yellow one in it! Give me that blue one."

Zeke rolled his eyes as he stretched for the block.

"What's the unicorn look like?" Coky asked. "Is it like the one in the movie Mom bought me for Christmas? I love that movie."

She had been a little skeptical when she tore off the wrapping paper, and The Last Unicorn stared back at her. But now she watched it at least once a week, rotating it among former Christmas gifts: The Jungle Book, The Princess Bride, and Monsters, Inc.

"Um, yeah, it looks exactly like that." Zeke demonstrated with his hands. "With a pink horn and a rainbow-colored tail."

"That's not what the one in the movie looks like! She has purple horn and a pure white tail. And her body is white, too. No way you saw the unicorn."

"Did so!"

"Nu-uh!"

"Uh-huh!"

Coky drew in one corner of her mouth, squinted her eyes, and crossed her arms again.

"Well, okay. I didn't really see it," Zeke admitted. "But Mom saw it."

"But you said Mom showed it to you."

"She only told me about it today when we passed by it. But she saw it the other night, on her way to work."

Coky pushed herself off the carpeted floor and pulled the Lego out of her hand. She poked at the four small circles imprinted on her palm. "Then I'll go ask Mommy."

"No, Coky!" Zeke grabbed her wrist. "She's asleep now, remember? She'll be mad if you wake her up. She has to get up for work soon."

Coky yanked her wrist from her brother's grasp, crossed her legs, and sat down. She pooched out her bottom lip. "But I want to know what it looks like."

"I could take you." Zeke pointed. "It's just down the street."

"Now?"

"No, we'd have to go at night because that's when Mom saw it. She said it's not out there when she comes home."

"But Mommy says we can't go outside after she leaves."

"That's just because she's not here to watch us. But," Zeke pointed to his chest, "I can watch us."

Coky rolled her eyes.

"Come on. Don't you want to see what the unicorn looks like?"

She nodded. "And meeting the annichrise would be fun. But you said unicorns're for girls."

"A unicorn's like a horse, only with a horn, right? Well, if it's just like a horse, then I can ride it."

"You can't ride a horse!"

"So?" Zeke argued. "Just like Mom says, 'There's a first time for everything.'"

"But I thought you said only girls could ride unicorns."

"No, I said unicorns raise them, but that doesn't mean I can't ride one. I'll be the only boy in school to ride a unicorn. I'll be famous."

Coky fiddled with the hem of her tank top. "Are you sure nothing bad is going to happen?"

"With a unicorn there to protect us? No way something bad'll happen. We'll go tonight after Mom leaves for work." He pointed to the clock, whose numbers were birds, on the wall to their left. "That'll be when that little hand gets to cardinal. She'll never know, and then we can see what a real unicorn looks like. I bet it'll be nothing like the one in your dumb old movie."

"It's not dumb!"

Coky stood in a sleeveless yellow night dress on the stepstool in front of the bathroom sink. Her hand, the size of a kiwi fruit, gripped the pink handle of her toothbrush as she grinned at the mirror. She poked at one of two small gaps in the bottom row of her teeth.

"Are you done yet?" Zeke called.

She hopped onto the beige linoleum floor and tugged open the door. Her brother stumbled inside, wearing blue pajamas covered with brown triceratopses on both the shorts and the shirt.

"Why were you leaning on the door?" Coky asked.

"I was waiting on you, slow poke. Why were you brushing your teeth again?"

"One's coming in. Look!" She pulled down her bottom lip and pointed.

Zeke squinted at the white tip protruding through the gum. It looked like the top of a ship he had seen on TV yesterday, only this one wasn't sinking. There had also been a lot of screaming in the program, but he didn't see any little people running around inside his sister's mouth.

Coky released her lip, which popped against her upper one. "I want to keep it clean so when it comes in all the way, it'll be pretty."

"Well, it looks pretty enough for right now. Are you going to take the toothbrush with you?"

"Do you think the annichrise has one?"

Zeke scratched his temple. "I don't know, but if you give it to the annichrise, what are you going to brush your teeth with? You probably better keep it here."

Coky giggled, laying her toothbrush on the counter.

"Where are your shoes?" he asked.

"In my room."

"You need them on your feet."

"You sound just like Mommy sometimes." Coky flitted toward the bedroom she shared with her mother.

"Go get your shoes! And you might want a jacket. Just in case."

She stopped at the doorway and spun around to face her brother, the bottom of her gown rising as though she was a princess dancing at a ball. She planted her hands onto her hips. "You're not wearing one."

"That's because I'm tougher than you are."

"Prove it!"

"Put on your jacket, and you'll see tonight."

Zeke locked his teeth together as he hiked along the road, the blonde hairs rising from his arms like bits of hardened cheese sticking to tin foil as it is peeled back from a hamburger casserole. Coky gamboled along beside him, the clips of her flip-flops sounded like the clops of a pony.

"Are you cold?" she asked.

"No." His teeth rattled.

"Maybe you should've weared a jacket." She rubbed the front of her dark green windbreaker. "I'm warm."

"I said I wasn't cold. No, Coky! Don't go in the road." He grabbed her arm, yanking her into the shallow ditch to go around a mailbox. "You could get run over."

"There's no cars!"

"We don't want to be seen, okay? That's why we stay in the grass…so we can duck down when we see a car coming."

"But the grass is getting my feet wet."

"You should have worn tennis shoes, like me."

"Mine are too small."

"Wait," Zeke stopped her.

Coky pushed his arm off her stomach. "What is it?"

"Lucy."

Two houses down from "Mountain Viewe"--the trailer park where they lived--a chain-link fence confined a large brown-and-white dog. Zeke had heard an older neighbor boy joke that "Lucy" was short for "Lucifer." He didn't know who Lucifer was, but he knew Lucy was a mean dog.

"Come on," he motioned. "But be quiet."

Coky tried to mimic her brother's stealthy walk past the fence, placing one foot as far in front of the other as possible and pushing past it with the other, but she stretched too far. Her leading flip-flop slid across the damp grass, and she landed on her side.

"Aah! My dress is—"

Zeke cupped his hand over her mouth. "I told you to be quiet," he hissed. He lifted his head. Cicadas buzzed into the empty night air.

Coky licked the palm of his hand, and Zeke jerked it away.

"Eww, Coky! That's—"

Throaty growls silenced the cicadas and crescendoed into frothy barking. Zeke yanked his sister to her feet, towing her behind him as he ran. They reached the end of the yard as Lucy smashed into the corner of the fence, growling as if they had stolen her squeaky hedgehog. Three yards down, they stopped behind a towering elm, panting like the dog from which they had escaped.

"How come you can scream and wake Lucy up, and I can't?" Coky demanded once she could breathe easily again.

"But you…oh, never mind." Zeke frowned and turned away. "Let's go. We're almost there."

Coky clipped along behind him, wiping at the damp patch on her night gown. A firefly blinked beside her, and she extended her hand for the bug to land on.

"Look at the firefly," she said. "It likes me."

"That's great."

"You're not looking!"

She stuck her hand in front of his face, and he puffed at the bug, knocking it off Coky's palm and into the night air.

She halted. "Zeke! Why'd you do that?"

He continued walking. "Why'd you put it in my face?"

"I wanted to show it to you," she said, jogging to catch up with him. "It liked me."

"Then it can like you away from my face," he said.

"Are you a scared of bugs?"

"No, I just don't like them in my face."

"Oh, I don't like all bugs in my face, but I don't mind fireflies. They're pretty. When they land on my nose, I can pretend to be Rudolph."

"Rudolph's nose's red," he corrected. "A firefly glows white."

"Yeah," Coky giggled.

Zeke rolled his eyes. They continued in silence, listening to the returned droning of cicadas and observing the shapes of the dark, cloud-like bushes and treetops. Then,

"Are you sure you're not scared?"

"I said no! Yesterday I pulled the legs off a cricket under the front steps."

Coky scrunched her nose. "Why?!"

"I don't know. I just felt like it. Look! Kudzu Hill."

A bed of kudzu began a yard away, the ivy-like vines rising steadily up a sharp incline that rolled to a rounded top. There, the street veered toward the right, away from the thick grove wrapped with leafy parasites that squeezed the trunks of the trees like boa constrictors would small shrieking mammals. A glowing cross, belonging to the hidden Church of God of Prophecy, perched on the tops of the trees.

Zeke and Coky scampered to the base of the hill, and Zeke continued up it, looking back at his sister.

"Come on! We're almost there."

Coky gnawed at her bottom lip, her fingers fiddling with the elastic on her sleeves.

"Coky! What're you waiting for?"

"You don't think we'll wake up the annichrise, do you?" she asked.

"What?"

"Well, I was thinking if the unicorn's raising it, then it's a kid. And all the kids I know sleep at night. I don't want to wake her up."

"If the unicorn eats at night," Zeke determined, "then she's probably not asleep. All that crunching's got to be pretty loud."

Coky nodded, and laughing, she clambered up the hill ahead of her brother.

"I'll race you!"

Zeke scuttled after her, tripping as he discovered hidden potholes and tree branches, pushing himself up, and continuing the cycle until he reached the top seconds before Coky. She looked down at the pencil-sized rip in her windbreaker.

"The branch got me. Do you think Mommy will be mad?"

Zeke examined his own pajamas, whose colors had grown darker from the absorbed moisture and dirt. "Not after we tell her we saw the unicorn."

"And the annichrise," she agreed.

He nodded, turning from his sister to the grove huddled before him. "It's really dark in there. I should've brought a flashlight. But isn't unicorns' horns supposed to glow?"

"Only when they're using their powers," she replied.

"Yeah, that's right. That means we have to go in a little ways to see it."

"But it's so dark."

"Don't be scared. Here, hold my hand."

Coky grasped the offered hand, and side by side, they stepped into the grove. Kudzu blanketed the ground, swishing against their bare legs like the edges of their comforters when they brush past their beds. Shadows fluttered in the treetops, which veiled the moonlight like a thick sheet pulled over a child's head.

Whoo-oo-oo.

Coky gripped Zeke's hand harder, drawing closer to him.

"It's just an owl," he said. "Let's keep going."

They rustled farther until the sound of munching, like Lucy eating her chow, enticed them to stop and listen.

"Is that an owl, too?" Coky asked.

"I don't think so."

"Then what is it?"

Two red slits appeared in the gap between two trees, and an odd noise, like someone trying to crank a sputtering car, followed after. Coky shrieked, throwing her arms around her brother, who staggered backwards. The slits moved toward them, crushing the kudzu with a succession of thumps.

"U-unicorn? Is that you?" Zeke's voice sounded like he was trying to talk while his mother drove down a bumpy road.

Coky buried her face in one of the triceratopses on his shirt. He held out a hand. "Do you want to smell me first? I know dogs like that."

The slits hovered inches away from his hand. The sputtering car cranked again, and Zeke jumped, one arm holding a trembling Coky. A hard, but furry object butted against his open hand, pushing him back but not knocking him down. He ran his fingers up the object and felt two bony spikes jutting from the top.

"You're not a unicorn!" he exclaimed.

Coky released her brother and stuck out her hand. Two nostrils blew warm air as it made the noise again.

She giggled. "It's a goat!"

Zeke kicked at the kudzu. "I guess that means there's no unicorn."

Coky's smile drooped. "Aww. And no annichrise."

"I really wanted to ride that unicorn." He paused. "Mom's going to be really sad, too. She seemed so excited about the unicorn and the annichrise when she told me. I like to see her happy."

"We can bring her this goat!" She squealed.

"No, Mom doesn't like pets. She says they're too much 'sponsibility, whatever that means."

"Oh, yeah."

The goat snuffed at their fingers and ambled back into the shadows.

"So what're we going to tell her?" Coky asked.

Zeke thought of his grandfather's ghost smoking a cigarette, God hating McDonald's, the rat being plague-ridden, and the unicorn not being real. His mom's stories were great, but that's all they were. God probably really liked Mighty Kids meals, and only he knew why his mother wanted to kill that rat, if there was one. He could see his grandfather's ghost spreading apart like the clouds.

He took her hand, leading her back the way they had come. "We're not."

"What?"

"We won't tell her about the goat. That way she can keep thinking the unicorn's raising the annichrise, and she'll be happy."

Coky smiled. The shadows in the trees didn't seem so scary now, and she 'whoeed' back at the owl. Zeke laughed.

When they reached the edge of the grove, he pulled his hand away, grinned at her, and scampered down the hill. "Race you!