— Now, that, right in front of your eyes, is a level 3 planet.
— What’s that then?
— Primitive life. They don’t know they are being observed. They don’t even know that there is any... [+]
“Nope.” I wiped my fingers on the napkin and went back to sketching, careful of my posture in the brace. The pine across the street was where witnesses said the hoofprints started, and I wanted to be here if it happened again. I’d pulled out my pad and chalks to prevent conversation, but it seemed to fascinate her. She stared at the paper wistfully as I lengthened a charcoal shadow.
“Do you think it was real?”
I started to shrug, flinched, changed the wince to a thoughtful look. “Dunno.” Did I think Jeff Ferguson would claim there was a unicorn in his back yard if there wasn’t? He’d been known to lift a few, but I’d never heard him called a liar.
She sighed; so did I. At twenty-two, Bernadette was pretty in a way that wouldn’t last, and she wasn’t going to be discovered like a small-town Lana Turner. A donut shop on Arkansas Highway 60 wasn’t the lunch counter at Schwab’s. She probably hoped someone would marry her and take her out of this one-horse town. Wouldn’t be me. I wasn’t much good to myself – how could I be any good for her? I realized where that train of thought was going and derailed it. That’s what came of leaving the house when the sky was barely purple and staring out the window. But sitting in the dark at home, trying not to move and set off the gnawing pain, wouldn’t do me any more good than sitting here sparring with Bernadette.
My eyes weren’t really focused on anything when I saw the shimmer next to the pine tree. It looked like heat off a paved road in the middle of summer, but without pavement or summer. Dew glittered on the grass, and I watched as a unicorn leapt through the hazy spot. A moment later, Bernadette looked up and gasped. It slowed, looked right at me, and tossed its head. When I didn’t move, it started off toward the meadow that Jeff called a back yard. No, not it. He.
She thumped my left bicep, jarring me thoroughly. Fireworks burst behind my eyes and pure torment tore down my spine. “Why didn’t you say something?” she cried. Really cried, with tears standing in her eyes. “Didn’t you see him trying to get my attention?”
This was why I never asked Bernadette out back in high school: everything was about her. But I had met the unicorn’s eyes. He was trying to communicate with me, I knew it. And I knew I would follow him anywhere, no matter what it cost me. He was magical, and finding that shimmer was the best chance I had of finding out what he wanted from me.
I put a quarter and a nickel tip on the counter and started packing up the chalks, in no mood to stay and finish the donut and cold coffee. She looked stricken, but the tears that had stood in her eyes were under control. “I’m sorry, Earl. I keep forgetting that you’re fragile now. Please stay.”
“Back tomorrow.” It was out before I knew I was going to speak, since I didn't want Bernadette to join me. Nothing that moved so gracefully could be caught unwilling by a man with shrapnel in his back, jagged bits of metal that burrowed deep under any exertion. I headed for the ’46 Dodge Custom that I’d bought when I got out of the Army hospital, and the down pillows for my back and buttocks, and I hoped the clutch wouldn’t cause me too much trouble after the jarring Bernadette had given me. I’d cross the highway tomorrow, despite the pain, and wait for the unicorn.
Bernadette was waiting for me when I got there. She said she knew where a unicorn was likely to go, what it wanted. “Purity,” she said, and the backs of her ears turned red.
I couldn’t keep up with her healthy strides, but I knew she was headed across the meadow to where an artesian stream bubbled. My nerves burned with the effort long before I arrived.
She gestured. “Pure water.” I looked around, and he came down gracefully from a stand of trees. He shook his head, met my eyes, and bolted back the way he had come. Guess he didn’t want to be caught. At least, not by Bernadette.
She apologized for dragging me all the way across Jeff’s meadow for nothing. “Don’t worry about it,” I panted. “Go on along, I’ll be fine.” She strode off without a backward glance.
I didn’t go back for several days. Instead, I researched unicorns at the university library in Fayetteville around another futile visit to the Army doctors at Fort Chaffee. Fae creatures can’t abide iron, and the doctors couldn’t take out the remaining bits of shrapnel without risking the spinal nerves they were lodged against. Which would end my traipsing through fields in search of unicorns, one way or another.
I got to the donut shop before Bernadette the next morning, parked, and limped across Highway 60. There they were, fresh hoof-prints in the grass. I reached toward where the unicorn had appeared. My hand disappeared, and I took a tentative step. I heard Bernadette’s voice and gritted my teeth, fearing that she would follow me. Her voice got louder, harder. “Clever, Earl, but he’s not going to want a broken-down wreck like you when he can have his choice between us.”
“Guess not,” I called back, feeling my heart crack. But I had to try.
I turned toward the road and heard her taunt “He’s mine, Earl, do you hear me?” as she went inside the shop. I knew she was right, since I would never be able to catch him without giving him pain. But I stepped through the shimmer while she had her back to me.
Nothing was different, except I felt hale and whole. The unicorn was there, his purifying horn laid across my shoulder, and I stroked his soft pink nose. He lifted eyes full of anguish, his legs folded under him and he laid his head on the ground. I whispered “No!” as the glorious horn blackened and dissolved. He lipped my hand when I knelt to stroke his face and weep at his freshly-scarred back, then he closed his eyes and was gone, the only magic I ever knew.
I knelt in the wet grass for several minutes, then rose easily and stepped back into my world with tear tracks on my cheeks. I sprinted across the empty highway to get to the Dodge, threw the pillows in the back seat and drove home.