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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Chasing Unicorns

Terra was born on top of a volcano (in Hawaii). She tamed a wild mustang before she turned sixteen, and before twenty-five, she traveled through most of the U.S. and to parts of Europe and Mexico. She has also held some unusual jobs, like training llamas and modeling high-heeled shoes (though not at the same time!) She co-owns a tattoo studio north of Atlanta with her husband, but currently spends most of her time creating artisan glass beads and writing. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, and also in Apex Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and a few other fine magazines and anthologies, both online and in print. Find out more at: terralemay.com.

***Editor's Warning: Not for the faint of heart***
The unicorn hunters looked like addicts. Like Shay's brother Eddie and Eddie's friends. Not the way Eddie and his friends looked when they were high, but sketchy and haggard, the way they looked when Eddie's hook-up fell through or when nobody had any cash or when cops were watching the house. They huddled around a campfire, a few yards away from the tent where Shay was supposed to be learning how to do his new job.
A skinny girl named Naomi, who couldn't seem to stop crying, sat cross-legged and hunched close to the fire like she was cold even though it was the middle of July. She was the virgin--ex-virgin--Shay had been hired to replace. Beside her sat Hector, whose cousin was a friend of Eddie's and had helped Shay get the job. And seated in a canvas-style folding chair on the other side of the fire was Mickey, a big, broad-shouldered guy who could have been Paul Bunyan's stunt double clear down to the beard and the flannel shirt. Except he had no eyes, only hollows where his sealed eyelids had sunken in and taken the shape of his eye-sockets. Mickey carried a knife the size of Shay's forearm and would be the one to actually kill the unicorn.
"Son," said Shay's boss, "do I need to let the tent flap down so you can concentrate on what I'm saying to you?" While Shay'd been waiting, Cap had unloaded the contents of a ten-gallon plastic storage tub and arranged everything on a card table inside the five-man tent he called his office.
"No, sir." Shay moved to the table.
Cap had set out a mallet, a battery-operated coffee grinder, a box of Saran wrap, and a digital postal scale almost identical to the one Eddie always used when he was dealing. He produced a unicorn horn from a cardboard mailer tube he'd brought with him from the truck, then held it up and looked down its length.
"Bit smaller than what we've been averaging lately."
It didn't look small to Shay. It was at least two feet long. Spirally, like a narwhal tooth. The same color as the inside of a seashell and shiny. It was pretty. It would've definitely run a man through.
Cap zeroed the scale, weighed the horn, and jotted the number onto a folded-up piece of paper he plucked from his shirt pocket.
"It's more fragile than it looks." He braced it against the table and gently tapped the mallet against the horn's thickest point. It crumbled instantly into pieces, like a candy imitation of the real thing. One second a horn, the next, jagged chunks and powder that looked disconcertingly like crack rock or clumps of meth.
It was Shay's skill at processing illegal substances that had landed him the job, but he still wished the thing could have somehow magically transformed itself into a couple hundred aspirin-shaped tablets. Unicorn horn was an antidote to poison, not a drug. Not like Eddie's drugs, anyway. It didn't have any negative side effects. It didn't hurt anyone. It seemed wrong to have to break the law to get it.
Cap produced a plastic card and swept all the fragments into a tidy pile. "That's the tough part--breaking it so it don't fly all over the place." He retrieved the coffee grinder and placed it next to the pile. "I reckon you can take it from here."
He deposited himself into a collapsible lawn chair in the corner, beside the stack of plastic storage tubs. He didn't warn Shay about what might happen if anything went wrong or if any of the horn disappeared. He didn't have to.
Shay adjusted the placement of the scale and the Saran wrap, then dropped the larger, thumb-sized chunks of horn one by one into the grinder. He used the plastic card--a laminated library card--to scoop the smaller chunks and powder in on top of the rest, thoroughly scraping up particles of the horn with the edge of the card until there was nothing left on the table, not even residual dust.
The machine grated when Shay put pressure on the lid, which was the mechanism for turning the thing on, then the rumbling smoothed into a low growl. When the horn was as fine as talcum, he dumped it on the scale. 397 grams. Same as when Cap had weighed it the first time. Shay hadn't weighed it again to double-check; it was just easier to work by subtraction than to measure out one gram at a time. But 397 grams was a lot. It was going to take a long time to get through all of it.
Back home, Eddie never could have afforded that much. Of anything. Definitely not horn. Horn was for politicians, corporate aristocracy and Hollywood royalty. It was too rare and expensive for small-time suburban drug dealers like Eddie.
Shay tore plastic wrap off the roll in narrow strips, then used the cutter built into the cardboard box to tear the strips down into smaller squares. When he had a dozen of those, he slid a square partway under the scale so the flat surface of the scale overlapped the plastic. It wasn't any different than helping Eddie make eight balls of coke, except these were smaller.
Shay scraped powder off the scale onto the plastic wrap until the scale read 396, then he shook the powder to the center of the plastic. He bunched the plastic together, spun it, twisted it into a knot, and pulled it tight into a one-gram ball that looked a little like a tiny, lilac-colored cherry because of the way the plastic-wrap stem stuck out the top.
Shay set it aside and moved on to the next, falling into the familiar rhythm of the task. Scrape, shake, twist, and knot. He lined the balls up in neat rows of ten. Eddie always liked it when they were easy to count. Cap would probably feel the same way.
When the light in the tent grew dim, Cap brought out a battery-powered Coleman lantern and set it on the table so Shay could see what he was doing. His growing army of tiny lavender balls numbered in the hundreds. There were so many that they looked a lot like the Pop Pop Snap fireworks little kids liked to throw at sidewalks on the fourth of July.
"You're fast," Cap said. "I'll give you that."
Shay bagged the last dozen grams, then Cap brought out a Ziploc bag full of smaller Ziploc bags and together they divided the tiny cherries into ten packs. When they finished, Cap escorted him out to the campfire, and they distributed a one-gram ball to each of the unicorn hunters. These were accepted with faintly murmured thanks, and everyone disappeared into their respective tents, leaving Shay and Cap alone again.
In a moment, there came the long, drawn-out sound of someone nearby inhaling sharply through his nose. Or her nose. It could have been the girl.
Then the sound repeated from another tent.
Shay and his boss watched the fire for a few minutes, then Cap rolled his shoulders restlessly. "Well, you stay up as long as you like. I don't expect you'll see any action tomorrow."
Cap returned to his office tent and zipped the door closed. Shay heard him moving around, heard the lid of a plastic storage container being removed and replaced, and the soft shushing, sliding sounds of a sleeping bag being laid out. Some rustling. A zipper. Then nothing.
Shay lingered by the fire until he heard the last of the unicorn hunters snort their dose, then he went to his own small tent and lay in the dark.
He dreamed of unicorns. By the hundreds. Thousands. Oceans of unicorns, in all sizes and colors. Unicorns that looked like goats and deer. Unicorns like white horses. Roan, chestnut, bay. Baby blue, lavender, and emerald green. A rainbow of four-legged animals, all sporting horns that looked like the horn Shay had processed for his new employer. They galloped in fields, paced between buildings, trotted through subways, and thundered in herds like water buffalo, over every corner of the earth. They had gotten into everything. An infestation. Not like water buffalo, like giant unicorn-shaped cockroaches.
Shay had a dose of horn in his pocket to give to Eddie, but he'd lost Eddie when the unicorns had flooded the city. Shay checked their apartment, Eddie's girlfriend's house, and even the rehab clinic Eddie occasionally promised to go to but had never actually visited. He checked the church where they held Narc-Anon meetings, and he checked the run-down brownstone where Eddie sometimes went to buy drugs. He found no sign of his brother.
He walked along the edge of a street, maneuvering around parked cars and stepping over gutter trash, paperboard coffee cups, cigarette butts, and broken bottles. And a unicorn horn, of all things, discarded like it was worthless.
"Shay!" said someone.
He turned instinctively toward the sound and caught the left sole of one of his knock-off athletic shoes in the grate of a storm drain. The bottom of the shoe peeled free from the leather, and Shay's arms pin-wheeled as he sprawled onto the curb, right into the knees of a white-haired man dressed in a white three-piece suit.
"You can't get what you want, Shay," said the man. "Would you sacrifice me, the last of my kind, for something that does not exist? You must accept that your brother will never be the person you wish he--"
"Screw you! You don't know." Shay struggled to his feet, then kicked the unicorn horn in the gutter at the man. He'd expected it to shatter like the one Cap had struck with the mallet, but it bounced off the man's arm and clattered onto the pavement, unbroken. The man stooped and retrieved it, then brandished it like a weapon.
Shay ran.
The man called after him, "Your brother will never live up to your expectations. Give up your innocence for him. Give up your life. But be cautious when you give of yourself to others that they do not take from you even what you meant to keep."
Shay made it more than a half a dozen strides, feet slapping unevenly against the asphalt because of his damaged shoe, before he glanced over his shoulder. The man raised the horn into the air as if in thanks, then tucked it under his arm, pivoted on his heel, and walked away.
Shay slipped his hand in his pocket. The dose of horn he'd been saving for Eddie was gone. When he looked again, the man in white had disappeared. So had all the unicorns that had been running through the city.
In the morning, Shay was the first to rise, but Naomi wasn't far behind. She offered Shay a perky smile and a granola bar.
"So," she said, pausing to tear her own breakfast bar wrapper open with her teeth before continuing. "Did you dream about them?"
Shay took a bite of his, chewed it, and swallowed before answering. "About unicorns? I don't really remember. Maybe. Is--is that normal?"
Naomi gave Shay an indifferent shrug. "Probably," she said. "I did, anyway. I hope you catch him quick. I had those dreams for a week before we caught mine."
That afternoon, Naomi stowed her belongings behind the seat in Cap's truck, and Cap took her back to the city. Hector, Shay, and Mickey hiked out into the surrounding woodland, toward a field a few miles from camp. Hector kept a hand on Mickey's elbow to guide him, but the blind man was surprisingly adept at making his way around trees. Shay was the one who had trouble keeping up, and by the time they reached the edge of the field, his thighs burned with every step. He was seriously considering flopping down for a rest, but before he had the opportunity to choose a spot, Hector pointed across the grass and urgently motioned for him to stay quiet.
In the field: A unicorn. His white flanks shimmered like sunlight off a waterfall. Shay's throat tightened at the sight, more beautiful and perfect than anything he'd ever seen in his life. His pulse raced. His face felt hot and his lower lip trembled. Tears came, but Cap had warned him unicorns had that effect on people, so he tried to pretend he was fine, that he wasn't crying like a stupid little girl.
"Now what?" he whispered. "What am I supposed to do?"
They were only supposed to be getting comfortable with the terrain. They weren't supposed to start hunting for an actual unicorn until tomorrow.
"Go out there," Hector whispered back. "If you're really a virgin, he'll meet you halfway. If not..." Hector mimed a grisly impalement, then wiped his own weepy eyes on his sleeve. "Go on, kid. We're right behind you."
Shay stumbled over a clod of dirt when he cleared the trees. The unicorn spooked at his sudden movement, and for one bright moment Shay thought it would gallop away. But when it landed, it pivoted to face him, dancing sideways as if it had hit the end of an invisible rope. It didn't approach like Hector had said it would, not a single step, but it didn't run away or try to impale him. Shay waded toward it through waist-high grass, clover, brambles, and a nasty patch of stinging nettles. It waited, frozen like a crackhead under a police spotlight, trembling, nostrils flared.
When Shay was an arm's length from the creature, he sobbed openly, unable to hold back his tears at all. The unicorn was the most perfect creature he had ever seen. Pure and good. Untainted by the evil and ugliness of the world. He really didn't want to kill it.
The unicorn lowered his head when Shay reached for it. The creature's muscles bunched and quivered as if it might bolt at any moment, but his eyes--large and liquid and gleaming like melted chocolate--his eyes held love like Shay had never seen from anyone. So devoted, so unconditional that Shay couldn't help but love it back. He loved it more than anything. He definitely didn't want to kill it.
The unicorn's shining horn jutted straight at Shay's chest. But Shay wasn't afraid. Love gave him the courage to reach out and grab hold of the creature with both hands. Love for the unicorn. And love for Eddie. He was going to let them kill it for Eddie. He loved Eddie more.
It seemed doable until Mickey and Hector caught up to him, but then Mickey put a hand next to Shay's, bracing himself as he jabbed his oversized Bowie knife hard into the unicorn's skull, right at the base of the horn. Blood spattered Shay's face. White light flickered in the corners of his vision, and suddenly Shay was not all right. Bile rose in the back of his throat.
"Don't let go, amigo," Hector said in his ear. "It's too late to turn back now. You let go, he'll kill you. Close your eyes."
Shay couldn't. Mickey struck the end of his knife with the heel of his palm to drive the point deeper. Blood flowed freely from the wound, streaming down the face of the animal, dripping off its muzzle and into the tall grass. Mickey pried with the knife, but failed to break the horn free. He readjusted, drove it in again, then a third time, like digging around the root of a sapling with a spade. The unicorn quivered and trembled.
In his head, Shay heard the voice of the man in white from his dream. Shay, I'm the last. There are no others. Who's going to cleanse the world of evil, if not me? Let me go, Shay. I forgive you. Let me go. I'm the last.
This monologue was accompanied by visions of the unicorn dehorned and dying in the blood-stained grass. Shay cried so hard his sinuses filled up with snot. He couldn't breathe--wanted to wipe his face on his sleeve--but Hector said, "Don't let go. He'll kill you. Maybe he'll kill us all."
Hector had the sniffles, but he wasn't crying out his eyes the way Shay was. Mickey, of course, had no eyes to cry with. Shay wiped his face against his shoulder, but it didn't help much.
This is murder, said the unicorn. Genocide.
Mickey continued to work his knife around the horn, plunging it into the unicorn's skull over and over. The unicorn stood perfectly still, held by the magic of Shay's innocence. To all outward appearances, it looked like a willing accomplice to its own murder.
Inside Shay's head, the unicorn pleaded for its life. Visions of a dead unicorn turned to visions of murders worse than anything Shay had ever seen on television, and those gave way to gruesome visions of wars where snowy fields as white as the unicorn's perfect pearly hide became fields of blood and gore. The unicorn assaulted Shay with imagery of evils so disturbing Shay was sure he'd never be able to bleach it from his memory. If I die to save your brother, who will die for you? asked the unicorn. Don't do this, Shay. There's still time to stop. It's not too late.
But Hector was right. It was too late. Shay had forfeited his innocence the moment he'd grabbed hold of the unicorn's horn.
"Can't you hurry up?" asked Shay.
"Kid, he's going as fast as he--" Hector suddenly pivoted to look past Shay, across the field behind him. "Oh, no. Fuck, no! Mickey, he's got a mate."
Shay glanced up to see a streak of white charging at them across the field. Hector turned and sprinted toward the trees. The mare pounded across the grass like an incoming storm front, unstoppable. Her horn, a lightning strike Hector couldn't escape. He screamed as she ran him through. Then, abruptly, he stopped. The mare crumpled on top of him.
Mickey suddenly freed the stallion's horn, and Shay, who hadn't realized he'd been pulling on it, almost stabbed himself when he thumped backward into the waist-deep clover and overgrown grass. The stallion crumpled more slowly than the mare had, his liquid eyes growing foggy before he finally dropped to his knees. He took a couple of shuddering breaths, then died.
"Come on, kid," said Mickey. The first words Shay'd heard him speak. "We got us a twofer."
Shay hugged the stallion's horn to his chest and heaved choking sobs over it. His heart was broken. Nothing he could ever do would make up for what he'd done. Mickey sighed and crouched next to him, fishing in his pocket.
"We just killed it," Shay cried. "The last one."
"Yeah?" Mickey waved an arm vaguely in the direction of Hector and the mare. "What do you call that one over there, then? They always say that. You gotta try not to let 'em get in your head." The big man withdrew a small glass device from his pocket, a bullet for sniffing drugs. He swiveled the top of the bullet open and held it toward Shay. "Here. This'll clear you up. You take mine. I'll get Hector's."
Shay stared at the bullet dumbly. He'd given up everything for the contents of that little device. He hesitated.
"No worries, kiddo." He thumbed vaguely toward Hector and the mare. "We got a twofer. One for you. One for your brother. Or maybe you can just save the other one for later. But you got to hurry and pull yourself together. Poaching unicorns is still a crime. We'll have to move on real soon, these two being out in the open like this."
Shay thought of Naomi, sobbing endlessly for hours. He reached out a trembling hand and accepted the bullet.
"I expect you know what to do with that," said Mickey.
Shay pointed toward the other unicorn, even though Mickey couldn't see.
"Is she dead, too?"
"Yeah. She died for him, to cleanse his soul of evil. Gave him a one way ticket past purgatory to the pearly gates. It's what they do, you know. It's why they're rare. And why they're protected."
Shay stuck the bullet to his nose, pinched off one nostril and sucked hard. The effect hit him instantly, bringing the world sharply into focus, making him feel clean and pure. He'd never felt so good in his life. Naomi was right. Everything was going to be okay. Everything was going to be just fine.
"Like snorting fucking Clorox, right?" said Mickey. "Makes the bad things go away."
Shay nodded. He closed his hand over the bullet and wiped his face on the sleeve of his shirt. He wobbled a little as he stood, but once he was on his feet, he took Mickey by the elbow and guided him toward the dead mare.
Mickey dug the mare's horn out of her skull with brutal efficiency, and only when he'd broken it loose did he free Hector's body.
"This was supposed to be you, you know," said Mickey. "We'd pegged you for lying, what with your background and all. But you lured a mated pair. That's something else, kid. A twofer. Never woulda thought. You ought to stick around."
Shay sniffled. "Yeah, but... Cap said it was a one time gig. I can't lure another one, can I?"
"Yeah, one time's the limit. But looks like we just had an opening for an apprentice tracker." He gestured toward Hector's corpse. Already, flies had started buzzing around it.
Mickey lifted the mare's horn, used it to point at the stallion's horn, which Shay was carrying. "Come on. We need to get out of here. No lingering around the scene of the crime. It's a rule."
The field seemed inexplicably larger on the way out than it had on the way in, the grass thick and the sun uncomfortably hot, beating down.
"Mickey," said Shay, as they walked. "What happened to your eyes?"
Mickey grunted. "I got tired of crying every damned time we found another unicorn."
When Shay didn't reply, he added, "Maybe you'll understand when you're older. Or maybe not. It's just, there's ways of dealing with shit. And there's other ways. Maybe in the end it's all the same."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 26th, 2013

Author Comments

I initially conceived of this story's premise not long after I started writing fiction and, soon after, wrote what I thought was a competent first draft. I then shared it with other writers, as one does, seeking feedback, and was quickly disabused of my notions of competency. I tried to fix the story but didn't have the skills I needed yet, and eventually I set it aside. Later, I attempted another rewrite, shared the story with a few more writers, then set it aside again, still too flawed for publication.

Time passed and I became a stronger writer, as one tends to do if one keeps at it, but the unicorn story continued to elude me. I tried (more than once!) to give it up as a lost cause.

This proved to be more difficult than you might think. Those who'd read it along the way (and there were many) occasionally got in touch and said things like: "What ever happened with that unicorn story?" "Did you ever get it working?" "Did you ever sell it?" "I loved that one." "It was my favorite of yours." "I still think of it."

This story appears here only through the persistence of the many wonderful writers who've helped teach me how to write and rewrite, who've supported and encouraged me along the way, who've stuck by me, and who I'm incredibly grateful to call my friends.

To any writer anywhere who has ever encouraged a struggling fellow writer: Thank you.

- Terra LeMay
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