A Unicorn in the Time of Dinosaurs 

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Tim Showers

From our annual Literary Issue, published Dec. 25, 2019, featuring original compositions and illustrations from local writers and artists.

Trek's thickly calloused feet padded softly on what once was a major thoroughfare. The painted lines on the roadway had long disappeared. Old signs flanking the road were rusted brown, some hanging despondently from a recalcitrant bolt. Trek had never owned a pair of running shoes, but she had seen a pair once. They were gray and the once-squishy soles were flat with more holes than the dilapidated signs.

In her job as a messenger between the two settlements, she followed two rules: Get the messages there quickly and don't get eaten by a dinosaur.

Like all messengers, Trek ran at an easy, efficient pace. If she started at sun-up, she would reach the other walled village by sunset. She could get there faster if she wanted but she had seen what had happened to some messengers' knees and ankles.

If a careless step didn't strand them (and few made it back to tell that tale), then their career as a messenger was shortened to only a few years. Trek didn't want another assignment, living inside the stuffy walls. She wanted to run and be free.

At the outside of her vision, the undergrowth rustled excitedly.

"Don't change your gait," she breathed to herself, calling on her instructor's words. She had started running messages two years ago, after two years of training. Not all messengers survive the training. And only a handful survive their first year. Trek felt — and was treated by most — like a true veteran.

But she had never had a close call. She chalked that up to wisdom, to making good choices.

The old, retired runners knew better, though they didn't tell her and let her walk around like she had done something special. Everyone gets a close call. Not everyone survives it.

Slightly ahead of her, an animal burst through the underbrush. It was an ornithopod, no bigger than a turkey. Trek's gait faltered only slightly, as her feet readied for greater speed and a change in direction, but her breath remained even.

"Sorry to spook you," she said to the fleeing animal. "Just me, running some love letters."

Trek called all the missives love letters. Maybe some were, though they were never for her and she was fine with that. When Trek dreamed, she dreamed of running outside the walls. Mostly the letters were inter-village communications, reports of large predator movements, news from other far-flung settlements on routes that Trek didn't run. They all had their set routes. This was the only one she had ever run. It had become comfortable, friendly even.

She grabbed the canteen from her belt, where it had been snug against the small of her back, and took a swig mid stride. When she brought the canteen down, swooping it back into the sweaty space it occupied, she dropped it. It clanked noisily onto the hard road.

In an instant she decided not to leave it. Her instructor probably would have told her to. But what could be the harm of taking a few seconds to retrieve the canteen? They were hard to come by and she may miss it on the way back or another messenger may nab it.

Trek turned and deftly scooped up the dented and empty canteen. As she rose, she saw something in the distance. Something following her. Her feet, so often in motion, rested on the broken pavement as her mind struggled to make sense of the shape.

A secret no one knew was that Trek was hard of seeing. She could see fairly well up close, and could make out shapes well enough to discern, say, a dinosaur from a decaying car, allowing her to bluff her way through training. But she was nearly blind at night, and her field of vision was blurred after only 40 feet.

There was an animal there, though Trek couldn't determine what it was. Not that it mattered.

"It doesn't matter what's behind you," she said, still eyeing the unknown animal. "It will either catch and eat you. Or it will not."

She turned and attempted to find that same easy gait. She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder.

"If you look over your shoulder, you've already been caught," she said, again summoning her instructor's voice.

Trek entered what had once been a small town. The cracked pavement all around it had slowed, though not stopped, the hungry wilderness. Some of the stores lining the streets even had solid window panes. In other runs, Trek had thought about how nice those must be, letting in light but not bugs. If she had known about the air conditioning that the windows had once kept in, she probably would have envied that too.

The dinosaurs' ruination of the world had done nothing to ebb global warming. Both were unwitting actors in human industry and, consequently, its own destruction. The hot summers and massive storms had killed much of what the dinosaurs had not.

The survivors built away from flood zones, and built walls tall enough to deter the spinosaurus. And they began trading and communicating the only way that had been consistent for the ape-like species for millennia: on foot. They ran during the day, in the thick wall of heat, only because it was slightly less dangerous than running at night.

Halfway through the ghost town, Trek heard a crash down an alley up ahead. If what was following her was a lesser raptor, then that could be its friends. She was running right for them.

"Try not to spook yourself," she echoed her instructor. "But listen to your gut." Her gut lurched and wrestled with her mind. That seemed like an unreliable thing to listen to. If she saw her instructor again, she would tell him so. Better advice would be appreciated.

Trek was glad she had stopped for the canteen, because now she had information. Something was following her. And now very likely, something was up ahead of her. Possibly waiting for her. The route didn't draw many predators. A single human running it perhaps every other day just didn't ring the dinner bell among the big ones. And the pack ones wouldn't want to share a pittance of human flesh.

But young animals, old animals, and sick animals would take what they could get, especially if the herds were in their summer pastures near the massive lake. Which they were.

Trek took her feet off the pavement and into a building with a roll-down metal door. A sign outside said "Jiffy Lube," and the back metal doors were rolled down. "You're here until sun-up," she said quietly. It was a little past mid-day. Perhaps six hours to go until sundown. "Fortify your position."

She pulled on the metal door's chain and pulley but it groaned and threatened to squeak. She let it be. Whatever she saw was relatively small, smaller than a car but bigger than a human. Perhaps she could get up high somewhere in the building.

She looked around and saw a car lift that was raised nearly to the ceiling. There was a ladder on the far wall, and she rested it against the lift and went up. With minimal collision between metals, she pulled up the ladder onto her perch.

Standing up, her head brushed the ceiling that had light fixtures placed at regular intervals under thick sheets of plastic. She knew about lights. They had some that were occasionally used in the villages. Lights and the solar panels that powered them were generally reserved for official business only.

"The business of not getting eaten," Trek said, smirking. Because that's all life was. That, and love letters.

She strained her ears for about an hour, trying to confirm her suspicion that she was being hunted. It all seemed hasty now. Maybe, if she increased her usual gait by just a hair, she could make it to the other village before sundown.

"No," she answered herself. "Settle in and settle down. You're here for the night. Get comfortable."

That was a joke. No one gets comfortable ten feet in the air with dinosaurs on the hunt.

A few minutes later, it began to rain. Trek was happy to be under cover, though the roof leaked great streams in several places and the pounding rain was deafening.

So it was no wonder that Trek did not hear her visitor. It wasn't until the animal was nearly under her that she saw it.

It was soaked through and definitely not a dinosaur. It also wasn't a dog, Trek was pretty sure of that. She had learned to read with a book that had a dog in it. Dogs, she was told, didn't last long in the age of dinosaurs. They were loud. If a dinosaur didn't eat it or the people it was with, then its people often would, if only to shut it up.

The animal looked up at Trek quizzically. It had long erect ears, a dark gray fur, and large brown eyes. Its feet were hard and circular. They made little clopping noises as the animal moved to get a better look at Trek. Its nostrils fluttering in excitement as if to whisper, "Hello, I see you." Trek could barely hear the animal making excited and repeated huffs.

The animal was a donkey, but there was no way for Trek to know that. Though she thought she figured it out from another book. The animal looked similar enough to a unicorn she saw once in a picture book. That animal was white and had golden hooves and a distinct gold horn. This animal was gray and had no gleaming horn. Its ears were bigger than the horn on the unicorn. But Trek had seen many drawings of people, dinosaurs, and cats that took liberties. Some artist must have made unicorns a little more majestic than they actually were.

"Hello, unicorn," Trek said to the donkey. The donkey — from a long line of wild burros that had migrated east with great herds of dinosaurs — inhaled more deeply and made its strange whuffling noise again, like it was winding up for something. "You want me to come meet you, don't you?"

The donkey looked at Trek expectantly.

"Do you think it's safe?"

The donkey waited, seeming to say it was perfectly safe.

The unicorn in the book had talked, but like its horn, that may have been exaggerated so Trek didn't expect it to answer her. Still, the animal had a knowing air about it. With the rain humming loudly on the roof, Trek didn't bother to be so careful with the ladder this time. It clacked hard when it found purchase on the concrete floor. Once assured it was steady, Trek climbed down.

Before her feet reached the floor, the donkey was by her side, snuffling her pants and grabbing at her belt with its dexterous mouth.

"Hey, that's mine. Did you invite me down here just to mug me? What gives? Are all unicorns this pesty? I've got a two-year-old cousin with better manners."

The animal — a female, confirmed by Trek ducking her head down to peer between its back legs — was after the hard biscuits Trek kept in her belt. Having more than enough for the rest of the day through tomorrow, Trek unzipped the pouch and broke off half a biscuit.

"Is this what you want?" No sooner were the words uttered than the prehensile upper lip of the donkey snatched the biscuit. "I didn't know unicorns liked biscuits. I don't know much about them at all, though. I assume you're a plant-eater. Otherwise you'd be more interested in nibbling my fingers than that biscuit."

The donkey finished the biscuit, and then regarded Trek sagely. The donkey's large ears honed in toward her like the many dishes on earth that had once followed the satellites in orbit, that now pinged piningly. Then, an ear flicked backward toward the opening of the garage.

Trek looked up. She didn't hear anything over the din of rain. The opening showed rain pouring down but her limited vision didn't reveal anything.

She was, of course, unarmed. Most ancient weapons had quit working decades ago, and any working weaponry was for protecting the walls. Messengers had feet, and when their feet failed them, they had brains. Something like that. It elicited cheers when the instructors said it on their first day.

The donkey was tense all over and looking out into the wall of rain. Then, she was on the move, quickly and smartly. She went through the office area where the formerly glass doors were gone, and leaped through the frame of a window.

Trek took that as her cue. She scrambled up the ladder and brought it up behind her.

Within seconds of Trek hunching into a crouch to make herself less visible from below, three lesser raptors skulked into the garage. They were about the size of an adolescent human and much faster. What they couldn't catch on the fly, they would catch by running them into exhaustion.

The raptors shook their blue-ish feathers and set to sniffing. They weren't coming in out of the rain, they were coming in for a snack. They clacked and chirped to one another in the way of the smaller, smarter dinosaurs. The lead raptor — likely a female with her two young from last year's hatch — waited by the open garage door while the other two circled in opposite directions of the garage walls.

Trek watched all of this from her perch. She was relatively confident that the raptors couldn't jump ten feet in the air to snatch her off the platform, but she didn't want to encourage an attempt.

The sniffing, the clacking, and the chirping continued for a time that was bent by fear. Trek worked to calm her breath, but she could feel her muscles tightening from her run and from a surge of adrenaline. Every inch of her body screamed to run. Since before she could remember, Trek had participated weekly in the dinosaur-breach drills in the village. But drills were often boring, better suited for catching up on gossip with friends. This was the opposite. Her mind had to wrestle her body into stillness and silence, summoning the ancestral knowledge of the first mammals to have evolved in the shadow of dinosaurs.

All three raptors snapped to attention toward Trek's platform. They must have determined her location by smell because Trek was certain she hadn't moved or made a noise. And it's not like she was scentless after running for hours in the summer heat.

A strange honking noise sounded in the distance. To Trek's ears, it sounded like a mix between a goose getting eaten and a triceratops during mating season. She thought she had heard this call before but couldn't place it. To an old farmer's ears, it would have sounded like any other donkey bray. The three raptors turned and trotted into the rain to investigate an easier meal.

Trek sighed, stretched her legs, and took out a biscuit. She didn't realize how hungry she was until that moment.

That evening, after the rain had stopped, and the sun painted the sky a pink hue, Trek saw her gray unicorn again. The animal came into the garage, stood at the base of the platform, and made the strange whuffling sound again.

"Oh, alright," Trek said. She slid the ladder down and met her visitor, who was already nuzzling her belt for another biscuit.

This time, after she fed the donkey another biscuit, she touched her fingertips to the animal's soft nose. She ventured further and rubbed her palm against the bridge of the donkey's face. It was slightly convex and still damp from the rain. At the space between the ears, where the donkey had a fluff of fur that hung heavy down to her brow, Trek searched for a horn. Maybe it had broken off? Maybe this was a young animal, like a young triceratops, and it would grow in later? But budding or broken, no horn could be found.

With Trek's fingers entwined in the fur between the outsized ears, the donkey objected and tossed her head. She nipped a little at Trek's offending hand as if to say, "No, don't do that." Then, the donkey walked forward and pushed her neck into Trek's hand as if to say, "Here."

Trek obliged. After some time, she realized her face was wet and she was having trouble catching her breath. Tears were streaming freely, and the sobs hitched in her chest. This was the first mammal other than human she had ever touched. She had seen cats and mice, but this animal was so like a human and yet so different. Her unicorn was beautiful and precious.

"How have you not been eaten? Where are the others?" Trek whispered to her. The unicorn in the book had been alone too. Maybe unicorns always were and would always be. Maybe they didn't die.

The unicorn had feet and brains. Maybe she was a survivor like Trek, only this creature lived outside the wall every day.

The donkey leaned into Trek's hands. She liked when she could catch up with the messengers, and get scritches and biscuits. It had taken her nearly two years to finally catch this messenger. She knew there was something wrong with this one's vision.

That night, Trek slept on the floor. The donkey stayed close by, awake and watching. But when dawn broke, Trek's unicorn was gone. As Trek moved her feet down the broken pavement, she scanned the outside realm of her vision to find her unicorn, but she saw nothing. It all seemed like a dream. Maybe it hadn't happened at all.

A block away, the donkey watched the messenger begin her graceful jog to the next village. The donkey matched the pace with a light trot. She would make sure the messenger made it safely to the human settlement, as she had for the last two years.

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Lindsay Street, who writes as LC Street, is a reporter, writer, and homesteader who lives near Charleston.

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Tim Showers is an art-making cyborg from the year 1984. He awesomely lives in Charleston.

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