The unicorn

Becky was drying the dishes when she happened to glance through the kitchen window into the backyard. There, nibbling the fallen seeds under her birdfeeder, was the unicorn, its white coat highlighted by the setting rays of the sun.

She blinked, but it was still there. Birds were making merry with food up at the feeder, unconcerned with the unicorn's presence. They wouldn't mind, of course they wouldn't went through her head, but of course she was imagining it; she just hadn't been getting enough sleep, that was all. She rubbed her eyes, forgetting for a moment that they were still soapy, but the stinging pain seemed to show that she was still awake, at least.

But the unicorn was gone. Her movement must have startled it. She thought she saw a flash of its tail through the bushes, but then nothing. As she finished drying the dishes, she kept glancing through the window, hoping it would return, but it did not.

Finally, it was dark outside, and the dishes were done, so she sat on the couch and idly flipped through the channels. Nothing seemed interesting, looking at the guide, so she just selected a channel at random, then flipped up through the channels, hardly pausing as one meaningless show after another passed by.

She heard, just as she was changing channels, someone mention unicorns, and in her haste to flip back, dropped the remote. She scrambled around the floor for a moment, finding it, then punched the channel down button, but nothing happened. Becky let out a moan when she realized the battery cover had come off and the batteries had come out. She saw one on the floor, grabbed it, shoved it in the remote the wrong way, caught her mistake, flipped it around, and then looked for the other, finally getting down on her knees and dragging it, and a large dust-bunny, out from under the couch. As soon as she found her channel, she groaned: it was the home shopping network, and they were advertising a unicorn pendant. Utterly frustrated, she turned off the TV and went to bed two hours early. Sleep did not come easily.

The next morning, as she was getting ready for work, she was not sure that she hadn't just imagined it. Certainly, she was not going to bring it up at work. People already thought she was a little odd; the last thing she wanted them to think was that she was hallucinating.

The day passed in a blur, and she found as she was driving home that she could not remember a single thing that had happened. Becky discovered that she was in her driveway before her mind had fully registered that she was even home, and she hurried to the kitchen, and rushed to the window without turning on the lights. Even as she was looking out into the unicornless backyard, something in her mind was saying that the unicorn would not appear until dusk.

Sighing, she decided to microwave a frozen dinner, and watch some TV for a couple of hours.

When her dinner was done, she arranged it on a plate so that it looked at least somewhat presentable, grabbed a napkin, and a dishtowel to set the plate on, and took a Diet Coke from the fridge. There was a sitcom on Fox that she liked, so she watched that.

Halfway through the show, she began to feel sleepy, and before she knew it she was sound asleep, half a can of diet Coke slowly going flat on her coffee table.

She work up confused, the light in the living room a garish blend of sunset and TV color. As she was standing, she heard a scientist-y looking man say, "Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new. One only has to look at classical literature to see that these creatures have existed, and been described, for quite some time."

"So are you suggesting," the news anchor said, "that these creatures have always been here, and no one has noticed?"

Fascinated, Becky sat back down. "We are encroaching further and further on their habitats," the scientist responded. "It is obvious that some encounters with these creatures is a result of settlement—"

"Where is your fossil record?" another man interrupted. "If these creatures have always been here, why do you not have any fossils, or skeletons, or pelts, or something?"

"There are no fossilized hamsters," the scientist sputtered, "so are you concluding that hamsters do not exist?"

"All I am saying is that this is a massive conspiracy," the angry man said. "You scientists, with your gene-splicing and genetically enhanced foods are ruining the world for the rest of us."

"Well there you have it," the anchor cheerily announced. "Are fairy-tale creatures a creation of the lab, or have they always been here? Stay tuned for an all new—" Becky shut off the TV.

How could you genetically engineer a unicorn, anyway? She dragged a stool in front of the kitchen sink. The sky was a brilliant reddish-pink, and the unicorn was there again. It would take a mouthful of seeds, then look up and around, then another mouthful. Becky's heart leapt when it went over to the birdbath and lapped up some of the water, but too soon it was gone.

That night, she brooded. She had never seen a unicorn before, and had, in fact, been lead to believe that they did not exist; however, the fact that there was one in her backyard seemed to suggest that they did actually exist. She did not know anyone who had ever actually seen a unicorn, but she was sure that there were a lot of animals which none of her friends had ever seen. There must be a million different kinds of animals, she thought, and they can't keep them all in zoos. Plus, maybe unicorns are really hard to keep. She vaguely remembered that they were elusive, and very difficult to actually trap, even if one managed to get close.

She thought, then, of her camera. Should she attempt to take a picture of the unicorn? Or would that somehow cheapen it? Who might she share a photo of such a wondrous creature with? Perhaps it would be better to keep it a secret.

As the months passed, the unicorn went from a curiosity to an obsession for Becky. Each day she checked the newspaper and their on-line service, to see if anyone had mentioned it, but no one else seemed to have seen it; or, if they had, they weren't talking, either. She checked out every book in the library that mentioned unicorns, and began to buy plants that she thought it might like. Every morning she would make sure that the birdfeeder was full, and the birdbath, too. She was careful to minimize any changes to her backyard, only planting one small plant at a time, and putting away her gas powered lawn mower and using a push reel mower instead.

Occasionally, she caught tidbits of news that seemed odd, but she had never really paid that much attention to the news, anyways, so maybe things like this always happened, although she could not remember there ever being a hippogriff threat in the city, before.

` One day at work, a couple of the secretaries were gossiping about how someone had apparently set off a bomb in some particle collider—Becky wasn't really paying attention—but then her ears perked up when the janitor claimed that this was because it was the collider that was causing the strange things to happen.

"Scientists'll deny it," he said, "but their damn machine is alterin' things at a quantum level, and that's what's making the weird stuff happen, like the hippogriffs, or that rain of frogs over in England."

"What do you mean?"

"Girl, ain't you been payin' attention? There's all sorts of weird stuff goin' on. People's seein' all sorts of strange stuff, you know, magical beasts, that kind of thing. I heard that there was a dragon seen, over in China, a fire-breathing dragon."

"Unicorns have always existed," she said without really meaning to. Then she stormed off to her office, slamming the door hard enough to rattle the glass, leaving a bemused janitor scratching his head.

That night, the unicorn did not appear. All day long she worried about it, and was slightly disturbed to notice when she was about to leave work that she had filled half a legal pad with little interlinked squashed-oval shapes, and her computer was showing the beginning of a letter: "Mr. Dupree: regarding" and a cursor flashing accusingly. She logged off, stuffed the legal pad in her briefcase, and hurriedly left. Maybe no one would notice that she had done nothing all day long.

It was not there again. The next morning, Becky called in sick. She walked around the backyard, looking for traces, but of course the unicorn had left none. Did I imagine it? I can't have! It's been a year, almost; I've seen it in the snow, I've seen it nose through the fallen leaves, I've seen it. . . .

It's been killed! Someone killed it!

No, who would have killed a unicorn? But a dragon was seen in China, and a hippogriff in the city—I bet a hippogriff could eat a unicorn

Why would it? I bet a corgi is easier to catch, and

She went back into the house. There was no unicorn. There never was a unicorn. She was mad. Someone would have seen it, if there had been a unicorn, someone would have written to the newspaper. There was no unicorn.

Sobbing, Becky ran out into the backyard and knocked over the birdfeeder, sending seeds flying every which way. She pounded her fists against the pole until they hurt, then slid to the soft grass. She curled into the fetal position and rocked back and forth until she could cry no more.

How long she lay there she did not know, but suddenly she was conscious of something looming over her. She rolled over slowly, her back aching from the unfamiliar resting place, and there was the unicorn, sniffing her. She was afraid to move, afraid that anything she did might scare it off. Afraid to even breath. But she had to breathe.

Unexpectedly, the unicorn spoke. Instinctively, she knew that the voice was in her head, but that did not alarm her, it seemed perfectly natural.

-You came. I was hoping that you would.

"All this time you were waiting for me?"

-Yes.

"I was waiting for you!"

-I know.

"I could've . . . "

-I could not enter your home.

"But . . . I thought I would scare you off."

The unicorn seemed to smile at that.

-There is little enough time. Will you come with me?

"Can I come back?"

-I think you already know the answer.

Becky looked at the unicorn, then looked at her house, her car, thought about her job, thought about her co-workers, thought about everything she had worked so hard for, all the comforts she had and then followed the unicorn into the woods.