Goddamn unicorns. Spontaneous mutation triggered by a new artificial sweetener started turning people into unicorns. The mutated gene somehow plucked the concept of mythical fantasy creatures out of fractured synapses, causing men and women to transmute into unicorns. The apocalypse had arrived in the form of a candy-colored fantasy instead of zombies. The first initial cases were viewed with snarky skepticism, and when verified, labeled as weird genetic anomalies by the media. It became an unchecked epidemic within weeks. Scientists pontificated that although unicornism was a DNA mutation and neither viral or bacterial, they speculated it was contagious via air and/or touch, and might possibly be mosquito-borne. Basically, they didn’t know squat.
“We don’t know how it is transmitted,” the press release from the CDC said.
Humanity may have shrugged and collectively adjusted to this new thing if the freshly minted unicorns were warm and fuzzy, but they weren’t. Not at all.
“It isn’t the unicorn’s fault. The horn is clearly the catalyst of the aggressive behavior,” a doctor proclaimed in a televised panel forum. He quoted Freud, hinting the growth of the horn stemmed from a profound psychological need to assert maleness. Other panel members vehemently disagreed, and the learned scholars descended into heated name calling and screaming. The network forced a cut to a commercial. A postmortem analysis of two unicorns killed by big rigs on the interstate, revealed that the horn spewed a mix of alcohol and a PCP equivalent into the unicorn blood. The level of malevolent drugs increased exponentially as the horns grew during the first sixteen hours of change. “We view it as nature’s way to assuage the pain of change,” the doctor said. A few rare unicorns retained human speech and rational thought for up to 24 hours after the change, but in the end, even they became mean drunks.
An adversarial beast with a sharp horn and hooves weighing in at 800 pounds was formidable enough. Their belligerent fits of irrational rage exacerbated the already deadly threat. Yet, many refused to believe. Who wants to accept that the silver-haired grandmother you talked to yesterday at the grocery checkout has morphed into a homicidal impaler?
Herds roamed the streets in colorful gangs, manes flowing and legs tapping musically on concrete. The hooves grew into an odd organic metal alloy, fused with keratin. Instead of clopping, the echo rang like chimes. During those first weeks, it seemed that unicorns came out of nowhere. A few were spotted romping through a field or down the block. Then came the Unicorn Tracking App. It allowed an exchange of messages with superimposed maps. Families came out onto the streets to watch them gallop by. A magical parade in a rainbow of colors. Word was slow to get out that it was people who were transforming.
The delight of seeing real-life fantasy prancing through the streets didn’t last. Whispered rumors related hushed stories of their nasty dispositions. The country lived in collective denial until a herd charged into a street art festival in Florida. Their rampage impaled five and trampled eight more to death. The facts couldn’t be buried anymore. The media referred to it as the Festival Slaughter Incident, and replayed the video loop for six days. A shocked cry rose up to do something. Reporters in helicopters followed the herds from overhead and recorded each carnage. As the number of killer herds grew, assaults approached a straight-up vertical line. The end was coming.
The spread of the disease overwhelmed law enforcement due to the sheer volume of unicorns on the streets. An algorithm supposedly posited by a major university spread on the interweb—it’s conclusion was that unicorns would outnumber humans in two years.
Small town sheriffs with only one or two deputies were stretched beyond their capacity to control the fiends, and so deputized vigilante groups. Neighborhood watches of men armed with baseball bats patrolled the streets to sound the alarm and to divert the unicorns away from their homes, but they were outmatched by the fury of the beasts. Each day, fewer men ventured out. Breathless nightly news personalities carried stories about the battles. Flashing red lights and the wail of ambulances screamed from the flat screens. Fear forced people to cower inside, and mothers pulled their children from yards when they heard that distinctive musical clipclop. Some said increased unicorn violence grew because surging hormones, coupled with the agony of transmutation, drove them insane. The unicorns made a game of copulating outside of schools in front of children. They weren’t sterile like zombies. Eventually, guns came out of closets, and the unicorn killings began.
It took a long month of chaos before the federal government stepped in. First, the national guard was mobilized, and then the full force of the military. Congress allowed marshal law.
Rounding them up turned proved to be more problematic than authorities imagined. They were so damn cute. Who could believe they were maniacal killers? The military rolled into town with tan camouflage vehicles to chase down the strays, and you could read the hesitation on the faces of the soldiers. They were authorized to use force, but many soldiers were reluctant to do so. After all, they had once been ordinary people, and many harbored a hope that a spirit of loved ones still lived inside. Who wanted to hurt a blue frolicking unicorn with a bright green mane? We lost a lot of naïve soldiers during that first week as they exited their vehicles in an attempt to gently scoot the unicorns toward the pens. The unicorns didn’t want to be caged, and they fought back.
Somehow, our psyche adjusted to this new absolutely weird shit. Human bodies twisted into obscene knots in an agonizing morph into unicorns. Once they changed, it was us or them—no going back. If your mother changed one day, she was gone and replaced by a delightfully beautiful but murderous beast.
The President announced a new Manhattan-style project to find a cure, two days before he turned and was shot by his own Secret Service after he morphed on the White House lawn.
Scientists couldn’t manufacture a cure overnight if at all, and so the Miracle All-Natural Cures proliferated almost as fast as the unicorns. Dandelion flowers dried and crushed, sprinkled on cereal was said to delay the onset, or if symptoms had already manifested, you were supposed to snort it up your nose. It was called Unicorn Snot, and it flew from the shelves. None of it worked and still, people paid fifty bucks a bottle for the stuff. Life with the crazy-ass unicorns was the new normal. Still, the department stores stayed open, and a new crop of herbal supplements grew exponentially as we clutched at any flower of normalcy.
Before the madness, I had a repair business one street behind the main drag. A tiny space with a glass front, small counter and workbench. I fixed computers and cell phones. Truth of it was, I replaced the glass on the phones and purged the computers of viruses and porn. I’d made a fair living. These days, I closed up early and spent the evening in a bar. Drinking with other lost souls to assuage the lonely ache was better than sitting on the couch at home with a bottle.
The Half-Time Inn was my watering hole of choice. Belying the name, it made no pretense at being a sports bar. No televisions carried soccer or the current cup or bowl tournament. A dark quiet place, no band. An old jukebox leaned against the corner near the hallway to the bathrooms. Only the lights worked to push back a little on the darkness. It had enough room for less than twenty patrons, two booths, two tables and a long counter with six stools. Except weekends, they had nothing to worry about from the Fire Marshal. Never more than eight or ten customers. The tables always were empty; some nights, the chairs crowned the worn tops.
She was at the far end of the bar, neon bouncing off her short blonde hair. Not a regular, maybe visiting from out of town. The way she sat square and upright, statuesque said she didn’t belong here. More the NYC type. Sales rep for one of the chains, I concluded, looking for a quick tangle and then back home to a boyfriend or lover.
Every male in the place, and a few of the women, noticed her, and their eyes lingered though she was intent on the cool glow of her phone and the amber swirl of her drink. Bourbon or Irish with ice. No sweet mixes for her.
Her gaze lifted from the phone, saw me, and gave a slight nod to my direction. Large silver hoop earrings lasered a blade of light across the bar. I returned the nod, and went back to the newspaper, soaking up the condensate from my own drink. A pragmatist doesn’t grasp at rings too far out of reach.
Three pages into the paper, slowing losing interest in crap-obscura articles about former child star celebrities, and the air changed around me, bringing a whiff of an exotic flower.
“Are you opposed to company?” the mellow voice asked. She placed her drink a foot from mine. My initial cynical thought landed on how much her friendship would cost.
“Do you bring something positive and uplifting to the table?” I asked. “Because the world is looking pretty dark right now.”
“The unicorn thing?” She said.
“Yeah, the unicorn thing—really ain’t looking too good for us humans right now.”
“I used to live here,” she said. “I try to visit family and old friends when my work brings me close, but there are fewer than there were six months ago.”
We exchanged trivial nonsense about the state of the world and the culture of our town.
“Care to go somewhere more conducive to quiet conversation?”
I finished my drink with a single quick swallow. These things don’t happen in my life. I followed her outside to her car.
Her apartment faced the inside of a pastoral garden with a swimming pool.
“I keep this place for when I’m down this way on business. My company pays for it.” Whatever she did, the company was easy on spending.
It was in a complex with three floors of well-appointed apartments that formed a block-length enclosure giving the interior courtyard a castle-like privacy. The parking lot grew a wildflower garden of high-end German cars.
We stayed inside four days, and the heat we created blistered the walls.
Late on Thursday, she came from the kitchen wearing a thin short robe which was unusual because clothes were an option we’d done without.
“You’d better go.” I glanced up from the bed. She’d shown irritation yesterday when I made her coffee too weak, and her love making had become more aggressive. I’d been grateful for the company, and having a warm body to sleep with was a balm to the craziness outside.
When I didn’t jump up, she shouted, “Now!” The muscles of her face were tight with anger. The way she moved, and the venom in her voice, told me not to question or try to placate. I half-pulled on my pants and dove for the door. A hoarse scream spat from her lips, and she began to change as I stood in the doorway. Her jaw jutted out and began to elongate. She was morphing into a unicorn. I’d only seen the transformations on television. Who knew the change happened so fast? The unicorn came down the steps bucking and jumping. Her skin was a pure raging pink, as if she’d stepped from a bath. The mane was a flowing gold. I was transfixed when she lowered her head and charged.
The shot missed, but stopped her headlong charge, and made her head turn to the second story balcony where the shot had come from. An old man hunched over a rifle laying across the railing. The unicorn turned and bolted before he could get off the second shot.
He saluted and waved me over.
“Son,” he said leaning down. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you just spent time getting it on with her, you are done for. They get horny before the transformation, and they’re real contagious then.” The old man wore a black baseball hat with a yellow ‘P’ in the center. Pirates.
“I didn’t know,” I mumbled. The old man shook his head. “It’s an observation. Nothing that’s been reported in the news. I’ve been living here a while and have seen a lot. I suspect you’re contaminated.”
“Month to six weeks. Least ways, that’s what I’ve seen. Give or take. Turn yourself in, and you might get some help from the CDC. Change comes on sudden like, so you won’t know till it happens. It don’t give a body much time to prepare. I’d say in about three weeks, you need to take care of business.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Shook one out and lit it.
“Take care of business?” I asked up toward the balcony, knowing what was coming.
He only tilted his head, shouldered the rifle and walked back inside his apartment.
They’re burning them at the pit again tonight. Smells like hamburger on a grill. Or I’ve gotten used to it. It’s a big pit, dug down deep and wide, even in the hard clay of the old soccer park. It holds twenty corpses stacked. They keep a mound of thick logs at the bottom, oak or cherry so it burns longer. The bodies are offloaded by tilting the bed of an Army dump truck. The military is good at killing when they set their minds to it. Crowds gather at the park four nights a week for the burning, enough attendance that makeshift bleachers were put up. Enterprising vendors sell beer and popcorn. The killing is a fire-stop measure, they say. If we terminate enough of them, it might stop the spread. Might.
The handlers at the pit avoided touching the bodies. All were outfitted in makeshift hazmat gear, like actors in a grade Z , low budget horror film. Others only wore masks and gloves. A scavenged fire department canvas hose connected to a compressor sprays kerosene over top. The duty fireman ignites the pile with a straw broom.
Other than an acid bath, burning is the only safe way to dispose of the once-human residue. Acid is not practical on a local level. Cheap solutions and immediacy ruled. Some believed the rising embers contributed to the spread of the disease, but there was an overwhelming need to do something concrete, and fire consumes everything, right? At the beginning, it was a solemn ceremony, though it didn’t take long to devolve into the raucous drunken thing it is now.
The old man sits high up in the corner of the top row of bleachers, his back against the post. The rifle lays across his lap, and he wears a heavy hunk of metal sidearm. An aura surrounds him, like a dim blinking neon sign. It reads: Keep your distance. Nobody talks to him. We nod to each other most every night. It’s been three weeks since she changed, and I sat on the top row, wondering when my turn will come. I think the old guy will be there for me.