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The Store

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Roman grew up with a deep love for unicorns, and rainbows, and all things glitter. His imagination let him have wild and beautiful adventures with his pet unicorn, whose name was, of course, Steve.

He drew him, over and over, hoping that if he just nailed it perfectly, his parents would understand, and finally see him. But while Pat and Dee indulged his stories and encouraged his art, it was clear they’d never really understand.

They did send him to art school though.

He wanted to love it, wanted to meet all those people who thought like him, who saw the world like him.

Unfortunately what he found was a mentor who’s best-known work was a photography series called Stick in a Box.

In the final evaluation, they were asked to make a self-portrait. Roman’s classmates had beautifully composed but tiny charcoal drawings of themselves, lined up in neat 8.5x11 boxes

Roman’s drawing was technically perfect, too. But it was a charcoal of a unicorn on a hill, surrounded with stripes of purple, yellow, pink, green, red that stretched off the box, off the canvas, and onto the wall itself. As a final touch, he said a wish to himself and blew on glitter.

Unfortunately, his mentor was… unimpressed. And Roman became an art school dropout, back in his dads’ house, shifted to the basement because his room had become a home gym.

His dads were still supportive, though. They knew he’d bounce back. But it didn’t always help when they’d talk about “now that you’ve tried that” and “finding a new path.”

Also, they kept bringing over their neighbor, Emile, who was Roman’s age. Emile has just started working with them at their retreat service for troubled and at-risk teens. And it’s not that Roman didn’t like Emile, it just felt like… they were prouder of him than their son the failure.

Okay, maybe Roman did dislike Emile.

So in a fit of… jealousy? Desperation? Roman announces he’s joining a temp agency. He’s going to have an office job. So, Dad, Papa, please make sure to purchase plenty of pens and graph paper as he will need them now. He even borrows Pat’s old office clothes. A bit outdated perhaps, but he’s professional now.

He starts at the communications firm and damn does he look the part, he’s sure. Even if his work is boring. Even if the people are very caught up in very small concerns.

In the middle of the very, very beige cubicles, and the very, very dull conversations, Roman finds a letter. It has his name on it, spelled in glitter and rhinestones. And it invites him to The Store.

But he’s… he’s being professional now. He’s a businessman. He doesn’t care about frivolity like glitter. Right?

When the second letter arrives, still with his name, still with the same address, still with no signature… well, it might not be smart, but he can’t help it

He goes to the address to find a lone, flickering neon sign that says The Store. He walks in to an elevator that has no buttons, but descends on its own. He walks through a pink-lit hallway to a curtain of rainbows, and finally emerges into a grand old room that’s been…. transformed. 

On one side: a gate closes off a clear space. On the other: several grand tables are arranged with fruit and hay bales. The back wall has a long bar and freezers of ice cream. And in the middle, a man stands with a slight smile and adjusts his bright purple tie and the shiny satin of his matching suit jacket.

“Welcome, Roman!”

“How do you know my name?”

“I’ve been expecting you, of course. Though you are late, by several days. It’s rather impolite not to respond to an invitation immediately, you know.”

“What is this place?”

“It’s the Store. And I am the Salesman.” Roman notices what definitely looks like long strings of tinsel in the man’s dark hair.

“What kind of store?”

“The kind that sells that and only that which you need.”

“Which is?”

“Roman, don’t be ridiculous. You know what it is. You’ve known your whole life.”

The Salesman flicks on the huge screen above the door. Footage of graceful horses under rainbows, horses in meadows, horses sleeping… except they all have a beautiful, spiral horn in their foreheads.

“Unicorns?! You have real, actual unicorns?”

“Yes we do. And I contacted you specifically to make you this offer: we have a unicorn, just for you.”

Roman starts to tear up.  "Really? You do? For me? I was right, all this time? Oh my goodness, can I see her? Him? Them? Do unicorns have genders?“

“They do, if they want them. Yours isn’t here yet: you need to prove you’ll take good care of them first. A unicorn isn’t just a pet, you know. They’re a commitment. They will love you forever. Can you keep one safe forever?”

“I think I can,” Roman responds, though he’s still jittery and very glittery.

“Excellent! Here’s the first requirement, then,” the Salesman responds. He pulls out a shiny folder.  In it is a description of “Sheltering and Feeding Your Unicorn”

“Do you have space to accommodate a unicorn? Can you feed one? To qualify for unicorn ownership, you must first demonstrate that you’re able to provide for them.”

Roman thinks of his basement room with a wince. “Uh, not yet. But I will!”

“And can you demonstrate that you’re stably employed, able to continue providing?”

“I will do that too.”

He heads off in a whirlwind of giddy and righteous energy. He’s getting a unicorn. He’ll do whatever it takes!

First stop is the hardware store. He finds a man in the lumber section and approaches with a bright smile.

“Hello good sir! I am in the market for lumber.”

“Whatcha building.”

“A stable.”

“How big’s the horse?”

“Uh, not quite a horse, but um. Bigger than a pony, but you know, they can probably become whatever size I need them to be. Um, just your average small horse, I suppose?”

“Where you buildin’ it?”

“My bedroom.”

The man stares, then picks up his radio. “Virgil, please report to the lumber department.”

“Will he be able to help me?”

The man doesn’t answer, just rolls his eyes and walks off.

Roman wanders until he finds the worker with the nametag “Virgil.”

“So, are you the builder?”

“Uh, what?”

“The man said you could help me.”

“Yeahhh, he definitely just said that to fuck with me. I’m not really a carpenter, I just do stock.”

“Well, you know more about it than me! Maybe you could try?”

Virgil stares down at Roman earnest smile, then finally sighs. “I mean, I’m gonna get paid, right? Might as well.”

He’s then the first to point out that Roman’s… ‘pony’ won’t want to live in his basement.

But in the backyard, there’s the slightly-rotted ruins of Roman’s childhood castle. It’s not structurally sound, but the space is good. And maybe some of the wood is salvageable. Roman starts kicking in the walls for good measure, and Virgil, with a strange fascination bordering on entertainment, joins in at his urging.

The hardest part is keeping his parents from asking about Virgil’s visits. Roman is very tired of being reminded that among his many failings, he doesn’t even have a partner. And the eagerness with which Dad and Papa ask about the ‘young man’ who keeps visiting kinda makes it obvious they hope that’s why. In Pat and Dee’s defense, they’re not trying to be pushy. They just saw the conspiratorial smiles Roman kept flashing Virgil, and the bemused but amused smiles Virgil returned.

But Roman’s getting a unicorn. Who needs a boyfriend when the unicorn will love him more than any human ever could or has.

Roman returns to The Store. “I’m building a stable, and I have an appointment to go buy hay. What’s next?”

“Ah, good. Now that you’re building a home worthy of a unicorn, you need to ensure the full environment is appropriate. Here, hold this.”

The Salesman hands Roman a spiraled cone. It feels like ivory, but is far too heavy.

“Is this…?”

“Yes, a unicorn's horn. They’re fragile creatures, but the weight of caring from one is all too real. Will your unicorn be surrounded by support and love? Is there a healthy family environment for them to come home to?”

Roman realizes that he’s not been on… particularly good terms with his dads. And it’s probably not all their fault. So he volunteers to join a weekend retreat: rafting and camping with the kids. And Dad, and Papa. And Emile.

If there’s one thing Roman can say for Emile, it’s that he’s a really great trier. He’s not particularly good at paddling. He volunteers to pitch a tent on his own and…. Well. It got up eventually.

Roman’s helping two of the teens assemble their own tent when Pat calls out to get ready for Truth Circle. The girls snort under their breath but call back to say they’re coming. 

“What’s truth circle?”

“Ugh, it’s so lame. It’s going around and sharing and they want it to be some deep shit. But I make up something every time and they can’t tell.”

True to her word, the young woman, sitting around the campfire, tells a tearful story of how her mom cut up all her tube tops and she just misses them, so much. A young man says he’s "so tired of assumptions just because I like loud music, and like knives, doesn’t mean I’m gonna attack my English teacher! I like my English teacher." 

To each pronouncement, Pat and Dee nod seriously, occasionally offering "Thank you” and “Good share.”

Roman just feels worse and worse, knowing that all of these kids are probably laughing at his dads on the inside, so when they ask if he’d like to share anything…

“I’ve been working really hard lately, trying to improve my life,” he starts, and Pat and Dee are beaming, holding hands. “I really want to make it all worth it, you know? Because growing up, people kept wanting to not play with me, and every birthday I wished for the same thing: someone to love me, unconditionally. And I know I’ve been flighty, and selfish, but I’m finally at a turning point where all my hard work feels worth it. And It’s because I’m finally about to get the one thing I’ve always wanted: a unicorn.”

His dads’ faces drop. “Uh, kiddos, we’re gonna have a quick lil' mini family circle over here, okay? Emile, you want to lead some campfire songs?”

Pat is the first to speak. "Ro, I was so happy when you told us you wanted to come, but this is just rude. This weekend is for the kids, why can’t you even pretend to take it seriously?”

Dee puts a calming hand on Pat’s shoulder. “Roro, your dad’s right. If you wanted to make jabs at us for not getting you a puppy, you could have done that at home.”

Roman tries to explain. “No, I mean it, I’m working on getting one. I’m making a good home for it and everything. I wouldn’t lie about this!”

“Oh, and you didn’t lie about 'Steve’ eating all the cotton candy all those years?”

“That doesn’t count, I was a child!”

“And yet you’re still acting like one.”

Roman is practically crying with frustration. “You know they’re the ones lying, right?” he whisper-screams. “All those kids. Just making up whatever bullshit they think you’ll accept. And I sit here, actually telling the truth, and you don’t believe me!”

Dee sighs. “We know they lie, Ro. Of course they do. Her mom beats her,” he gestures with his head to a girl. “His father passed away suddenly. Xe had a miscarriage. They just got out of an emotionally abusive relationship. They all lie, outrageously, and then suddenly one day they’re telling the truth because they trust that now no one will believe them when they’re actually vulnerable. But we know, and we’re there when they do.”

“Is that the problem?” Pat asks softly. “Were we just bad enough parents that you’re doing the same thing to us?”

“No, of course not!” Roman insists. He’s properly crying now. “I’m trying to tell you…” He trails off, seeing their disbelief. “Fine. I’ll just… go. You guys can adopt Emile instead.”

In the background, Emile pops his head up. “Did someone call me?”

All three shout back, “NO!”

Roman stares at his dads for another moment, helplessly, then stomps off.

He fucked up. Now there won’t be a loving family environment. Now he’ll never get his unicorn.

He gets home and glares at the rainbows and Care Bears and streamers in his room, then starts bagging them up. All of them. All of the old drawings, and paints, and especially the glitter. Plus the hay he’d lovingly dyed rainbow, and the huge amount of carrots.

He throws them all in bags and goes to toss them in the backyard, when he can no longer hold it back and starts to cry. All these hopes he’d been building. All his childhood dreams coming true. All for nothing.

He hides in the grey basement all weekend, staring at the dumb assignment about a dumb vacuum for his dumb job. He was urged to make a pitch for the ad campaign, unless he wants to stay a temp forever. And even if he can’t get his unicorn, he’d like to create something again. But a vacuum? A “mystic” vacuum? What even is that.

On Sunday afternoon, he hears power tools from the backyard, and drags himself outside to tell Virgil he can stop working on the dumb stable now. But Virgil hasn’t just finished the stable. He’s decorated

And it is an explosion of color.

“Oh my goodness gracious,” he breathes, looking at all the rainbows painted up and down the walls. Drawings are pasted all around, with strings of tinsel everywhere. “Are these… my drawings?”

“Uh, yeah, you put all the materials out here, isn’t that why?”

“Did I put all these in those bags?”

“Well, no- your dads saw what I was doing and brought out their favorites of your art to add”

“They… like my art? But it’s all the unicorns, I thought…”

He brushes away a tear. His original drawing of Steve is here, a big red heart with a very spiky stick figure. And so is his high school masterpiece, a photorealistic unicorn rearing in the sunset.

Virgil scuffs a sneaker against the ground. Like the stable, he’s a little technicolor, splats of paint on his pants and shoes and face. “Do you like it?”

“Like it? I… you made an art show of me. Of all I’ve done over the years. And you didn’t give up on this ridiculous project. Thank you, Virgil. I love it.” He stares, and suddenly grins. “Hey, any chance there’s some glitter left over? I have an idea.”

He prepares a gorgeous, glitter-filled presentation for the damn vacuum, and even makes it a demonstration of how well it works in one go. It’s not just the Mystic Vacuum. It’s dreams coming true. It’s an experience

But the working world does not care if employees are going through a coming-of-age realization. Cubicles are immune to your thinking-outside-the-box urges. The 'safe’ presentation of terribly restricted gender norms gets the ad.

He comes home, a little crushed, but Pat’s there waiting for him.

“Papa, I fucked up. Again. I just… really suck at being a grown-up”

“Did you go for it, though? Did you try?”

“...yeah.”

“Did you care about doing it?”

“...yeah.”

“Then you’re doing great, kiddo. The most grown-up thing you can do is fail at something you care about.”

Roman sniffs, and hugs Patton tightly. “Thanks, Pop Star”

“Now, do you want to hear what Emile did?”

Roman struggles for a moment. “I’m trying very hard to be grown-up, but I really don’t.”

“No trust me. You do.”

Roman eyes him warily.

"When we were coming back from the campsite, he got tangled up in his own life jacket. And fell into the water because of it.”

“…really?”

“Mmm-hmm. And… I may have taken longer than I should have to get him out because I had to not be laughing when I pulled him back into the boat.”

Roman chuckles, then laughs, and Pat’s laughing too.

And suddenly, Roman notices something.

“What are those on the wall? Are those my paintings?”

“Oh those? Yesirree!”

“Did you just put them up?”

“Of course not. They’ve been up since you sent them home in freshman year, sweetie.”

“…you didn’t help Virgil just because you felt bad?”

“Oh honey, no. We’ve always loved your art.” Patton ruffles his hair. “We just want you to be happy.”

Thanks to Pat, Roman shakes off his setback, and when he sees a call from Virgil, he picks up eagerly. They go out for dinner, Roman still in his glitter from the presentation. And it is… wonderful. Virgil is sarcastic and witty, and only ever seems to mock Roman with the same level of skepticism he gives literally everyone else.

Until he finally asks, “So, now that it’s done, when are you getting the pony? That’s the big secret, right, you’re actually buying a pony?" 

And Roman smiles and says, "Almost. You see, I’m getting a unicorn.”

And Virgil stares a moment. Then he cracks a smile. “Cute, I get it. Like the pictures.”

“No, for real!” Roman tells him. “I’ve been working on this so that I can get a unicorn. I mean, I don’t know if I’m back in the running, but I think I fixed the family environment too so, hopefully.”

And now Virgil goes still. He’s concerned. “Um. So, where is this unicorn coming from?”

“The Unicorn Store,” Roman responds matter-of-factly.

“Uh-huh,” Virgil nods slowly. “And that’s definitely a real place.”

“Yeah, I’ve been there several times. It’s lovely, and the Salesman is wild.”

Virgil’s eyes are a little bit bugging out of his head now. "The Salesman?”

“Yeah, he gave me the steps I need to get my unicorn. Place to live, nice environment, prove i can support them, you know. Like pet adoption, but better.”

“You gave him your financial information? Ro, I know you’re really excited but… this sounds like a scam.”

“Why does no one believe me? It’s real, I swear. There’s even a hay-staurant.”

“…you say you’ve been there? Can I come see?”

“I don’t see why not.”

But when they get there, nothing seems right. The entryway sign is gone. The elevator still moves, but it doesn’t open to a pink hallway. And in the room… the decorations are gone. The Salesman isn’t there. The screen is missing. And Roman… starts to doubt. Virgil isn’t surprised, but he’s worried. Roman looks so heartbroken… did he really believe in this? A grown man, thinking he’d actually get a unicorn?

“Ro, we should go. If you need help making sure that guy hasn’t used your info to, I don’t know, buy random things, withdrawing money… I can help.”

“No,” Roman insists. “No, he’ll be back. I’ll stay.”

“Roman, c'mon, don’t do this…”

“I know what I saw!” he shouts. “It was real!”

“I don’t doubt he did a great job with the showmanship, Ro. I believe you. But he’s clearly gone now, and… it might be time to assume he’s not coming back.”

Roman doesn’t turn, and Virgil sighs. He keeps hoping Roman will relent, but if there’s one thing he’s already learned about this man, it’s that he’s stubborn. So he leaves alone. And Roman waits until he hears the elevator leave to break down.

Virgil, walking out, feels something in his shoe. He checks and it’s hay. Rainbow hay. But he expected that - it was a scam, right? A well-done scam. He walks on.

Roman goes home and finds himself just sitting in the stable, dejectedly. It’s so lovely, and it made him so happy but… He knew he was a daydreamer. Had he really fallen for such a ridiculous thing?

Dee and Pat find him together, and sit with him in the stable. 

“It’s really well built,” Pat comments.

“And your art is lovely,” Dee says, fondly tracing a unicorn horn on the wall.

Roman sniffs. “It’s just a catalog of mania at this point. My slow descent into madness.”

Dee hugs him around the shoulders. “Roberry, you’re not crazy. You have a spark that is just… so unique. No one could hope to match the way you view the world. Hell, even I can’t. Neither can your Papa. But that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It means we’re just limited.”

“Is this some of that feel-d trip stuff you tell the troubled teens?”

Dee grins. “Nah, they never believe the sappy shit. This is just for you.”

Roman wipes his eyes. “I’m sorry I’m such a disappointment.”

Dee and Pat object in one voice. 

Dee continues, “Hun, you are so loved. By us, by the people who meet you… You’re joy, Roman. You remind people of joy.”

“And that boy seems to really like you, too,” Pat says, wiggling his eyebrows at his son.

Roman groans. “He definitely thinks I’m crazy.”

“Give him a chance, okay?” Pat asks, patting Roman’s shoulder. “He might surprise you.”

“He built this, didn’t he?” Dee asks, gesturing around. “He’s gotta like you at least a little.”

The next day, Roman goes back to the hardware store, looking for Virgil. He searches every department, and all the back rooms he can sneak into, but nothing. No Virgil. He ends up sitting in the backyard, glaring at the stable, but still… hoping.

He’s interrupted one day by a very tentative knock on the back gate. And Virgil comes out, looking sheepish. 

“Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to disappear…”

“I was looking for you at the hardware store?”

“I got transferred, actually. Turns out having a full construction project to my name means your boy got promoted. I’m… sorry, about The Store. I shouldn’t have left you so abruptly.”

“It’s okay. And congrats.”

Virgil sits in the stable next to Roman, and smiles when Roman leans over on his shoulder. He’s about to suggest they get coffee when Roman’s phone starts ringing.

“Hello?”

“Congratulations, Roman! He’s arrived!”

“Who is this? Who’s arrived?”

“The Salesman, of course. And your unicorn. He is here in the store, waiting for you.”

Virgil stares at the phone. “That’s him?” he mutters. “Here, if he’s a scammer, let me talk to him, okay?”

“I… you’re sure? He’s there?” Roman asks. His heart is in his throat. What if it really all had been true? What if Virgil scares him away? “I came by, and you were gone…”

“We don’t set up the full store for just anyone, Roman. It’s not for him. It’s just for you. But you need to let me know if you’re serious about this unicorn. If you don’t want him, there’s a woman who’s qualified who needs him just as much.”

“I’m coming!” Roman interjects. “Don’t give him away, please! I’ll be there as soon as I can!”

He jumps up and is practically sprinting to the car, Virgil barely able to keep up. 

“Roman, can I at least come with?”

“Yes, sure, just don’t tell me not to go,” Roman says, practically vibrating with excitement.

The decorations aren’t fully back, but the sign outside is, at least. They descend through the elevator, and this time… the hall isn’t empty.

“Ah, Roman! You made it! And I see you brought… a companion,” the Salesman says, eyeing Virgil suspiciously. “He will, of course, have to stay out here while you meet him.”

“He’s really here?” Roman asks breathlessly. “My…?”

“Your unicorn, yes. I called you to say so, did I not? He’s right through those doors.”

“And I can meet him?”

“Yes, of course. You don’t have to take him home - as I said, another woman also needs him if you don’t want to anymore.”

Virgil outright staring at the Salesman’s outfit. It’s blue today, all satin and rhinestones and tinsel. But still with a nicely-tied tie. The Salesman looks back, and adjusts his glasses. “Salutations.”

Roman approaches the doorway slowly, and eases it open. Rainbows spill out as he walks in, letting the door close behind him.

He is… beautiful.

He’s there, in real life. A huge, graceful horse with a pearl horn and a shimmery mane. He wickers at Roman’s approach.

“Hi,” Roman breathes. “You’re… oh my god, you’re here. It’s Mr. Unicorn, right? Do you care?”

The creature nods.

Roman feels tears rolling down his cheeks as he reaches out a gentle hand to caress the beautiful thing’s nose.

“I’ve waited for you for so long. I wished for you every birthday. I would close my eyes and think 'send me someone to love me, unconditionally, for me.’" He smiles wetly. "I called you Steve.”

“And I…  I worried so badly that you weren’t real, because I needed you to be real. I needed you to really, really love me. But…” Roman looks into a pair of soft brown eyes, huge and understanding. They feel… familiar. 

“But I can’t bring you home with me. Because there’s a woman out there who needs you more than I do. And you are going to love her, okay? You’re going to love her and support her, and never judge her dreams. You’re going to make sure she knows you love her. And… and you make sure she never feels alone, okay?”

The unicorn nods, and nuzzles Roman’s chest. He wipes his eyes. “I’m going to hug you now, is that okay?” Another nod.

Roman throws his arms around the equine neck, breathing in the strange mix of lavender and sugar and sunlight that is the unicorn’s scent. A hair from the mane gets stuck to him, and easily breaks off. He tries to give it back, but the unicorn shakes his head. A memento, then. Just for him.

He turns to go, and sees the Salesman has entered, and brought Virgil with him. Virgil is staring, open-mouthed.

“Mr. The Salesman- I can’t take him. Please give him to the woman you mentioned, okay? She earned it, right?”

“She did. And since you no longer are a client, you can just call me Logan.”

Roman wipes his eyes, but holds tight to the single hair. “As long as he’s happy.”

“Will you be?” Logan asks. His face doesn’t betray any emotion.

Roman walks to Virgil’s side, and takes his hand. “Yeah, I think I will.”