Authors: Beth Hautala
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Copyright Â© 2015 by Beth Hautala.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Waiting for unicorns / Beth Hautala. pages cm
Summary: “After her mother dies, twelve-year-old Talia McQuinn goes to the Arctic with her father, a whale researcher. Over the course of one summer, and through several unlikely friendships, Talia learns that stories have the power to connect us, to provide hope, and to pull us out of the darkness”âProvided by publisher.
[1. GriefâFiction. 2. Arctic regionsâFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.H2886Wai 2015 [Fic]âdc23 2014007441
Edited by Liza Kaplan.
Map illustrations Â© 2015 by Matt Farleo. Text set in 11.5-point Baskerville.
To my husband, Aaron, and our beautiful children.
Your names are on every wish in my jar.
And they have all been granted.
THE INUIT WOMAN TOLD ME
that if I ever saw a unicorn, to close my eyes.
“Unicorns break your heart,” she said, all the warmth seeping out of her voice. She was warning me against the very thing I was dying to see.
But that's the trouble with things like unicorns. You get hungry for the impossible and it eats at you. Pretty soon, all you can think about is
âthe thing you're supposed to shut your heart to, pretending you never actually cared about it in the first place.
But I did care. And I told myself that when I saw a unicorn, I'd keep my eyes wide, wide open, and just let the sight of it pour into me, breaking up whatever wholeness was left of my heart. And I'd make my wish.
IN EARLY MAY, WE MOVED.
It was the first time I'd ever left home for someplace else, and, of course, Dad said it'd be great.
“It'll feel like home in no time,” he said.
I didn't believe him, but I didn't tell him that, because it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Home is only home when the people you love live there, and the only person I had left to love was Dad. So I guess home was anywhere he was. Which was fine and easy to say while everyone and everything was familiar. But whether I wanted to go or not, we were leaving the familiar behind. Even the normal end-of-school routine would be different. I'd finish seventh grade far away from the rest of my class and turn in the last of my assignments by mail.
Before we left, Dad and I packed for three days straight. We taped over the seams of a couple-dozen cardboard boxes, then shipped them away on a cargo plane, and drove north. We were leaving behind our house in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, which was far enough north already in my mind, considering it was only about a five-hour drive to the Canadian line. But one mile-marker at a time, we went right on over the border toward Churchill, Manitoba.
I'd never crossed the border before. It's all very official and serious. The men and women in uniform with stern faces and clipped questions and the Canadian flag flying high over the border station made me nervous. Guilty. Like maybe the stuff we were taking into Canada might be illegal or something. But all I had in my pockets was some ChapStick and a candy wrapper. Our duffel bags were just full of clothes, and I guess we must not have looked too suspicious because they didn't ask us to get out of our vehicle for a search or anything.
The border patrol has an interesting job, I think. All the pictures they look at every dayâhow many driver's licenses and passport pictures do they see?
The photo on my passport wasn't great. I looked too excited about getting my picture taken. My eyes were wide and there was a surprised look on my face. I looked like I thought my whole life was bound to be one big unexpected thing after another. But I don't like change too much, or the unexpected, and it was frustrating that Dad somehow thought all this was a good idea in the first place. Nobody drags their kid to the Arctic for the summer. But my dad was doing just that, and it was surprising how fast my entire life suddenly felt unsteady. Like one big gust of arctic wind could sweep it all away.
Of course, the border patrolman didn't care about any of that. He just asked for my name and matched it to the name printed on my identification. And if he noticed the funny look on my face at all, he probably just thought the lady at the passport office had been quick with her snapshot finger.
“What are you doing in Manitoba?” the patrolman asked.
“Whale research,” Dad said. And I was thankful he left it at that, because once he got started talking about whales, there'd be no stopping him.
The patrolman waved us through, and I turned around in my seat, watching as the gate lowered behind us. The border station shrank smaller and smaller as we drove. The road pulled us away from that invisible border line separating the United States from Canadaâseparating home from everything else. And when I finally turned back around in my seat, it felt like we were going in reverse because I'd been watching the road move away from us for so long. That's what leaving is like. Watching things slip away from you until your insides ache and everything feels backward.
Dad and I drove until we reached Montreal, where a man waited to buy our truck.
“We won't be able to drive past Thompson, Manitoba,” Dad said. “No one can, because the roads actually end. And there's no point in having a truck you can't use.” He's practical like that.
After Thompson, the roads leading north just stop, giving way to arctic peat bogs and ocean inlets. I'd spent the past few weeks poring over the pictures I'd found online, trying to see it all in my headâsomething I could barely imagine. I tried to picture the bog lakes and stretches of tamarack trees. In the fall, the trees would trade their green summery clothes for needles the color of saffronâa spice Mom kept in a small glass jar in the spice rack.
But winter was still in charge where we were headed. In the Arctic, things stay cold a whole lot longer than other places. It's too far north to thaw when farther south everything is getting on with the business of spring.
The Montreal man who bought our truck seemed nice enough, though I don't remember very much about him. The only thing that really stuck in my mind was his hair. It sprouted wildly out of his head, and once in a while he ran a hand through it, trying to calm it down. But it wouldn't be calmed and kept falling into his face, where it got mixed up in his eyebrows. There was even hair coming out of his ears and poking up through his dirty flannel shirt where he'd left it unbuttoned, and though I tried to ignore it, out of his nose, too.
I didn't think I'd care who bought our truck. But when it came right down to it, I did. I guess I'd envisioned people like us having the Ford, and somehow, I couldn't make this man and whatever family he might have fit that picture. It made saying good-bye to the old green truck even harder than I thought it'd be. Strange, how you can get attached to something that's done nothing but carry you from one place to the next.
The Ford had carried me to school on snowy days when Mom and Dad didn't trust the buses.
It had carried us to Dairy Queen on hot summer nights. Dad would let me ride in the back, just as long as I sat down and leaned against the cab. He would take the back roads and roll the windows down so that his country music could pour out into the summer air. Mom would sing along, letting the wind carry her voice. She always opened the back window so I could sing along, too, and she held my hand through the space there, like she was afraid I'd blow away in all that warm summer wind.
And of course, the Ford took us to the hospital and back, over and over again, when Mom got sick.
But we left the Ford behind, along with all those memories, and boarded a plane that would bring us closer to Dad's whales. We would have to take two of them: a big plane from Montreal to Winnipeg, and a smaller one from Winnipeg to Churchill.
And as our plane bounced once before lurching into Canadian skies, I wondered what would be carrying me around next.