It started with two words:
He paused, mid-shower, face still lathered with suds from a bar of unidentifiably-scented soap that his aunt had purchased for him as a gift last Christmas. At first, he thought it might simply be a noise in the house distorted by water in his ears; just for a moment, though, he could have sworn that it sounded like a voice of some kind. Lilting, feminine, aimlessly elegant, a bit Mid-Atlantic. He shook his head. It was weird, but, perception plays tricks, and anyway, he was late (again) for the carpool that would ferry him from his country home to the featureless gray International Style office building in the city where he went to work every day. His fellow civil servants, in no more hurry to get there and start working than he was, nevertheless reacted with petulance at any delay to their arriving there. So, yes, the standard schizophreny of spending life earning a living. As opposed to the more exotic schizophreny of hearing voices in your head while you shower.
No need to leap to alarming conclusions, he thought to himself. It’s not like you’ve ruled out the water-in-the-ears thing. He finished his grooming with a minimum of fuss, dressed, and then walked very quickly to the carpool pick-up point, breathing in the wet, cottony morning air of late October.
He neglected to use his conditioner.
* * *
The next morning, the voice came again, right as he was soaping his face. Two words, as before:
This time, he stopped. He felt a cold nut of anxiety in his gut. Definitely not water in the ears, this time. It had clearly been a voice. For a long time—as long a time as he possibly could spare, anyway, given the carpool—he stood there in the shower, listening to the hiss of water from the head. If the voice had anything more to say, it did not feel the need to speak up. With a petulant grunt, he finished his grooming, dressed, and then walked very quickly to the carpool pick-up point. He neglected to use his conditioner.
* * *
The next morning, the voice came again, right as he was soaping his face. As before, it came from directly outside the shower curtain. “Conditioner, dear.”
“What?” he practically shouted, his voice echoing off the tiles of the shower. “What do you want?”
“I would think that would be obvious,” said the voice. “I haven’t exactly been talking around the issue. I’m trying to think of a way that I could make my intentions more clear, and am honestly drawing a blank.”
“‘Conditioner’?” he asked, befuddled.
“Why, yes, darling,” the voice replied. “It’s merely that you clearly own a conditioner for your strange human mane, and you keep not using it. Is it any wonder your hair sticks up all over the place and refuses to lay where you comb it?”
Eyes wide, he pulled open the shower curtain. There was no one else in the bathroom. Water from the showerhead began pooling on the unprotected linoleum floor.
He closed the shower curtain and took a few steadying breaths. Then he preoccupiedly finished his grooming and jogged quickly to the pick-up point for the carpool.
He thought about going to see a doctor.
He did not use the conditioner.
* * *
And there was another morning. That was the thing about having a regular job that required a modicum of cleanliness and professionalism: there was always another morning. This time, he stepped into the shower with rather more hesitation than usual, taking a moment to engage the pointless privacy locks on the bathroom door before stepping under the water. As previously, all was silence and soap until the periodic face-washing, and then:
“All right,” he said, eyes closed and spitting soap out of his mouth. “Who, or what, are you? Is this a ‘haunted house’ thing?”
“Heavens, no!” said the voice. “Can you imagine? Moi, a ghost? Clanking chains and threadbare sheets with holes cut in them are so dreadfully yesterday, don’t you agree?”
“So—so what, then?”
A prim little sniff. “I,” it explained, “am a unicorn. I have been sent here from my idyllic land across the starry fissures between dimensions on a mission of utmost importance, which is to say: to get you to properly use hair conditioner.”
“Hair conditioner is… important to you, somehow?” he asked, leaping over questions he was not at present prepared to address.
The voice gave a disbelieving series of sputters that sounded uncomfortably like a white person from the 1980s attempting to beatbox the opening of a rap song. “Of course it’s important, darling! Your shampoo is wonderful for stripping away the oil and grime and icky muck your monkeylike scalp produces with wild abandon, but it leaves your hair strands flaky and dull, prone to tangles and breaking on the comb. It’s self-evidently important! And the princess-regent of my faraway land feels the exact same way, which is why she has given me the task of making sure you use it.”
He leaned against the wall of the shower. “Listen. I am very late for my carpool right now, and I really don’t have the time to discuss my showering habits with you.”
“Very well,” said the unicorn. “Until next time.” Her voice lapsed into silence.
He bit his cheek lining, hard, his eyes darting. Once again, he pulled open the shower curtain—nothing there. Not even a single cloven hoof-print.
He finished his grooming and ran, flat-out, to catch his ride.
* * *
That night, during a break in an otherwise-ceaseless row of autumn thunderstorms, he leapt on the opportunity to snag a shower before work the next day. He was nothing if not safety-conscious about this sort of thing. It came as no surprise whatsoever when the unicorn began speaking to him again.
“Conditioner, dear. And this time, you can’t use your habitual morning tardiness as an excuse.”
“Okay, okay, fine!” he said, fumbling for the tall green bottle. “You win! Conditioner! If I use this, will you go away?”
He gritted his teeth. “What do you mean ‘For now’?”
“Darling, don’t be ridiculous. You can’t just condition once. It would be like eating once. For the sake of your hair health, you must keep conditioning. It must be as regular an exercise as brushing your teeth.”
“So you’re going to keep coming here every time I shower?”
“Of course not. I shall only keep coming until you don’t need me to remind you to condition.”
The idea of visiting his doctor moved from “think about” to “definitely schedule.” First thing next week.
* * *
“So… it’s schizophrenia, right? It’s gotta be schizophrenia.”
His doctor chewed on the end of his pen for a moment. “Not necessarily.”
“Doc, I’m hearing voices. Or a voice. Someone who identifies herself as a unicorn. This isn’t a conventionally sane sort of thing to be happening.”
“The first thing I want you to do is to relax about this.”
“Relax? About hearing voices that aren’t there?”
“See if it helps if I put it this way: if you heard a unicorn’s voice talking to you while you were sleeping, you’d think it was a dream. Right?”
“Well, yeah,” he said, not sure he was liking the turn this interaction with his physician was taking. “This isn’t while I’m asleep, though.”
“Nevertheless,” said the doctor. “The neurological mechanism can be very similar. Many people who experience what you’re experiencing are actually living a sort of momentary waking dream; your brain is firing into your auditory receptors without a corresponding stimulus to your ears. The bigger question is whether or not these voices are interfering with your daily life, because then we would have to start talking about your options for treatment.”
“It only happens when I shower.”
“And when it happens, is it forcing intrusive thoughts into your head? Is it telling you do to do things you don’t want to do?”
“Would you like to go into more detail about that?”
“It’s telling me to use hair conditioner,” he said.
His doctor chewed on his pen some more.
“Well, you do look a little bit frizzy.”
* * *
“So I’m supposed to contact him or the emergency room if anything changes,” he said the next morning, scrubbing at his back with a loofah brush. “If these exchanges get disturbing, or out of control, or whatever.”
“Goodness,” said the unicorn, “I have no idea why it would have to come to that. Just condition your hair like a good little monkey and everything will be fine.”
“I’m sorry, was there a threat in there? What happens if I don’t?”
“Well, I think we’ve all seen the evidence of that,” said the unicorn. “Hair all tangled up like a mass of straw, or an onion loaf. It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t suit you, and it can’t be comfortable.”
“No, I mean, what’re you going to do to me if I don’t?”
The unicorn paused, as if for thought.
“I suppose I’ll just keep trying until I succeed. A royal command is a royal command, after all.”
“So you’re not going to, I don’t know, impale me on your horn?”
“Good heavens, no. Not only would that be positively barbaric, but it would completely wreck my very expensive hornicure. And that, sir, would be a net loss of beauty and fabulousness. A perfect anathema to my mission here.”
“Fine. Just don’t turn into a monster on me, or so help me, I’ll go on the pills and put you right back into dreamland.”
“I’m certain you’ll have no need of that,” said the unicorn.
The shower continued.
“So! Are you going to condition today?”
“Out of time,” he said, looking at his waterproof watch. “We’ve been talking a while.”
“I see,” said the unicorn. After a moment, she began humming.
* * *
The next morning, he overslept his alarm by a full half an hour. He did not condition.
* * *
The next morning, during his routine e-mail check, he discovered that an online contact had displayed her ignorance of a topic he considered himself to be an expert on. Much time was spent helpfully pointing out said person’s factual flaws. He did not condition.
* * *
The next morning, he woke to find that the dog had soiled the laundry room floor overnight and had subsequently decided to wallow in it, leaving behind a virtual masterpiece. The dog was to dog shit what Matisse was to oil paints, except Matisse did not occasionally eat his oil paints. Cleanup was extensive and exhaustive. He did not condition.
* * *
The next morning, the toilet simply did not flush. He did not condition.
* * *
“So I was thinking,” said the unicorn. “Since things inevitably seem to keep coming up, over and over again, maybe you could, I don’t know, wake yourself up a half hour earlier.”
“A half hour?” he said, scrubbing viciously at his armpits after a dark, sweaty morning spent removing an entire goddamn tree from his driveway, felled in the previous night’s storm. “Seriously? I get little enough sleep as it is.”
“Shower at night, then! Right as soon as you get home, so your hair has plenty of time to dry before bed. That way, nothing unexpected will stand in the way of your full personal toilet.”
He made a noise halfway between a grunt and a groan. “Okay, first: with your plan, we’re talking about twelve extra hours worth of grime on my body every single day. Second: the last thing I want to think about right as soon as I get home from a day full of obligations is yet another obligation.”
“Organization, darling! It’s all a matter of prioritizing.”
“Exactly!” he shouted. “It’s a matter of prioritizing! Believe it or not, conditioning my hair isn’t actually a priority!”
“Aha,” said the unicorn. “I see.”
He grunted at the unicorn’s tone, but said nothing more in response. He did not condition. He was, again, out of time.
* * *
“Well, look at how early you are this morning!” said the unicorn, rather bubblier than usual. “Plenty of time for self-care, wouldn’t you say?”
He grunted in agreement.
“Certainly enough time to, I don’t know, put a little conditioner on?”
“Probably would be, yes.”
There was an awkward pause.
“Bottle’s… right there,” said the unicorn, with an awkward chuckle.
He grunted again. The unicorn hummed.
With one last all-over rinse, he finished cleaning himself, failed to condition, turned off the tap, and stepped out into his empty bathroom.
It was the first time he had ever made a personal grooming decision out of raw spite.
* * *
“So! I asked one of my friends back in my idyllic home-world to compose a little song that might give you a gentle encouraging ‘push’ into discovering the delightful world of conditioning. And do you know what she said?”
“Look, unicorn,” he said. “I respect that you’ve come all the way across the starry fissures or whatever. It sounds like a really long way. Lots of trouble to get here and all. But we’re clearly working ourselves into an impasse here. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even want to condition my hair even when I have time to do it, because that would be letting you win.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, darling.”
“Damnit!” he said. “I’m not your ‘darling’! And the thing is, your constant pestering is causing me to want to condition my hair less, rather than more! You’re actually making the situation with my hair worse!”
“Oh, my, no,” said the unicorn.
“Oh, my, yes,” he replied.
“That’s… that’s really unfortunate. I’m largely considered one of the best magical horses in my magical horse kingdom at encouraging self-care and beauty. If even I am unable to convince you to mend your ways—”
“Hold on a second. There are options, here?”
“More and different magical horses, yes, but—”
“Could I try talking to one of them?”
“I… suppose I could speak with the Princess-Regent about it, but—”
The unicorn’s tone grew low and conspiratorial. “I’m not sure you’d like them,” she whispered.
“Why don’t we try them out,” he whispered back, “and see?”
* * *
“Okay okay okay,” said the pegasus. “So there I was, in the middle of my third set of fifteen reps, and I was all like, horse, I am just killing it with these free-weights today! And so I keep adding weights to the bar and here I am thinking I made some kind of huge jump in progress until my spotter points out that this is America, right? The weights aren’t labeled in kilograms like they are at home, they’re labeled in pounds!” A moment of expectant silence. “Get it? Pounds?”
“I’m sorry, what?” he said, trying to find the soap in the bottom of the shower while keeping shampoo out of his eyes.
“Pounds!” the pegasus reiterated, more loudly, apparently attempting to make the humor stick via brute force. “They’re less heavy than kilograms are!”
He fished through the sad and tattered remnants of his high school education for a moment. “They’re two completely different measures. One’s weight, the other’s mass.”
“They’re both weight,” the pegasus insisted. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t label weights with them! That just doesn’t make sense. Duh.”
“What doesn’t make sense is that you use ‘kilograms’ in your magic horse kingdom.”
“Horse,” said the pegasus, “everyone uses kilograms. In the whole entire universe. I don’t know why you Americans have to be so weird about it.”
“Whatever,” he said. “Aren’t you here to bother me about my conditioner?”
“Yeah, I guess,” said the pegasus. “That’s what the Princess-Regent wants, anyway. But I’m pretty sure you have bigger problems right now. Like your lack of deltoid definition.”
“Wait, you can see me?” he said, as a gnaw of worry began working at the back of his neck.
“Well, yeah,” said the pegasus.
“I thought you guys were always outside the curtain.”
“I’m not wearing clothes!”
“Neither am I,” said the pegasus. “Your point?”
“Okay, that’s it. I’m requesting a different magical horse.”
“You sure about that? I mean, I love ’em and all, but some of the guys can get a little… weird.”
“Next, please,” he insisted.
* * *
“I don’t even know what a ‘longma’ is.”
“We are the mythic offspring of horses and dragons,” said the longma, in precise and clipped tones. “We combine the greatest traits of both our forbears’ bloodlines: the grace and stamina of our horse ancestors with the unbridled ferocity of our dragon ancestors.”
“Our heritage also shows in our diet. We are omnivores and, while we graze, we also relish the meat of monkey-creatures. But don’t worry; I shan’t eat you.”
His eyes went a bit wide. “That’s a relief…?”
“Not without a great deal of serious forethought, at least. I don’t like to bind myself to promises when the future is an uncertain thing. Who knows? Maybe I will be forced to eat you due to circumstances I have not yet glimpsed. But I promise I will think really hard on the subject before doing anything. Anything else would just be impolite.”
He sighed, heavily. “Next, please!”
* * *
“Hello! I’m Puca the Pooka, here to brighten your day with laughter, magic, and whimsical fun, fun, fun!”
* * *
“SCRAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” shrieked the hippogriff.
* * *
Nothing but heavy breathing this time.
“H—hello?” he asked.
i love showers said a curling, whispering voice just barely at his threshold of perception.
i love the way the water falls and falls and falls. all you would need to do is open your mouth. just open your mouth and breathe the water in. let it fill your lungs, drip by drip by drip—
“NEXT!” he screamed.
* * *
The next morning, there were no magical horses outside his shower curtain. It was a ridiculous thing to say, of course—there never actually were any magical horses outside his shower curtain, just voices. So it would be entirely possible, under the circumstances, for a particularly quiet magical horse to be there and just not say anything. But it didn’t feel that way. The bathroom was just sort of empty. He even tried calling out once or twice, trying to figure out what this new game was.
Nothing. No response.
“Huh,” he said. He tried to continue his shower routine, but had lost his place and couldn’t remember what parts of himself he had cleaned and what parts he hadn’t. So he had to start all over again. Due to the time thus lost, he again failed to use his conditioner.
Absolutely no one gave him any guff about it.
* * *
The next day, there were—again—no magical horses outside his shower curtain.
* * *
Same with the next day.
* * *
Same with the next day.
* * *
The gray office downtown seemed to become more and more gray as autumn began to give way. His hair was, of course, a disaster. Clean, mind you. Very, very clean. But it was all rough and weird-looking and yes, as the winter set in, it got really annoyingly full of static electricity. He eventually bought one of those shampoos that has the conditioner mixed into it, which is not going to be as good as an actual separate conditioner, but it was certainly better than nothing at all in terms of manageability. Because his position in the civil service was data entry-related and rarely required him to leave his cubicle, it was literally possible for him to go entire days without speaking to anyone. E-mail was sufficient for his intra-office communication needs, and it wasn’t as though he actually liked anyone he worked with.
His hair improved.
* * *
“You’re asking if I can prescribe a course of medication that would cause you to hear voices?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, the first time we talked about this you thought you could dose me with something that would make it stop if it started to become a problem. If you can stop them, you can start them too, right? I mean, that’s how medicine works. If you know the mechanism behind something you can find chemicals that will push it in either direction. Uppers vs. downers. That sort of thing.”
“It sounds like you’re asking me to give you hallucinogens.”
“For medical reasons.”
A good solid pen-chew. “Do you really need for me to explain this to you?”
“I think somebody does, yes!” he said, shifting agitatedly in his chair. “Medicine is supposed to make people feel better, right? You have pain, you relieve it. You hear bad voices, you stop them. Why does everybody just stop at neutrality? Why is it perfectly okay with absolutely everyone if we bring ourselves back up to zero, but the moment we push ourselves beyond that, try to use the same tools to get a little positivity, it’s immediately the most horrible thing imaginable?”
“Pharmaceutical happiness isn’t actual happiness, John. It just feels like it for a while.”
“And if I take aspirin for a headache, my lack of headache isn’t actual lack of headache. It just feels like it for a while. I don’t see the relevance.”
“There’s a difference between feeling happy and being happy.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I don’t see it. If it all comes down to what I perceive, what’s the difference?”
“All right,” he said, “forget it. We are getting way off track into this medical ethics thing. It’s not that complicated. I just want the dreams to come back.”
“And here’s where language fails us. We use the same word for ‘hallucinations’ as we do for ‘hopes and plans and wishes.’ We want to help you get some of the latter.”
“And if I want the former?”
The doctor shrugged. “That’s the thing about the first sort of dream,” he said. “They’re not supposed to last forever.”
* * *
He left the office with a business card and a direct line to a counselor, if he ever needed to speak with someone. It was a nice gesture, but he never used it.
Time passed. His hair sort of plateaued. It probably wasn’t going to get any better. The days blended one into another until they became an existence, which was, y’know, fine. Most people had an existence. It wasn’t anything to be ashamed of.
Winter became spring.
* * *
Nightfall. The crickets were loud outside the bathroom window that overlooked the yard, loud enough that they practically shook the thin frosted-glass pane. The routine was to spit out the toothpaste, rinse, turn off the light, and head to bed, but on this night, he stopped after ‘rinse’ and just stood there for a moment, hands pressed upon the water-spotted marble countertop, looking at himself in the mirror.
He traced the faint, just-barely-visible worry-line arcing down from his nose to his chin with one finger. He plucked another wiry gray hair from his temple.
He spoke, watching his reflection’s mouth move as he did so.
“Sorry,” he said, simply. “I just thought it was a pain having a unicorn pester me all the time.”
Silence, for a moment. A brief puff of warm wind from the window.
“What changed?” said the unicorn.
He breathed in, sharply.
“I realized that it was better to have a unicorn pestering me,” he said, “than it was to not have a unicorn talk to me at all.”
“I see,” said the unicorn.
A pause, filled with crickets.
“Your hair looks nice. Have you been conditioning?”
“‘Kind of’ is better than ‘not at all,’ darling. It’s progress, and I’m glad to see it. I suppose that means the job I was originally sent here to do is done; I have faith that you can take it from here on your own.”
“I see,” he said. “That… that makes sense, I guess.”
“It does. You don’t need my help with your hair anymore, John.”
“Right,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Now,” said the unicorn, “let’s talk about your flossing habits.”
He opened his eyes, and though he could not see her in the room itself, the mirror-glass revealed the presence of a unicorn standing at his side.