To Catch a Unicorn
Elle McRane was a 16-year-old girl who lived on Utope, a world a good number of light years away from Earth. A typical teen, Elle wore her strawberry blond hair in a long curly ponytail. Her brown eyes usually snapped when she wasn’t treated as she thought she should be, but they could twinkle when she was pleased.
Elle lived in a medium-sized home in a good neighborhood, but her bedroom was very much like one you might find in a castle. Ever since she was three, Elle had behaved as if she was, and was moderately convinced she actually was, a princess. And not just a pretty royal face, but a haughty, beautiful, richer-than-thou kind of princess. Her queen-sized bed had a purple velvet canopy with sheer curtains all the way around, capable of closing her away from anyone who might want to bother her.
She seemed to have just about everything she might ever want; but wait—she wanted something else. She wanted, wished for with all her might and dreamed of, an eomgole. Her parents would have bought her an eomgole, but there were only four in the known universe; you would have to qualify for one, and only one, and pay through the nose. So she could only dream.
Until . . .
Dannis Doverman was also 16, and he lived in a small home just three doors down from Elle. They had known each other since they were three, but in fact they despised one another. Dannis loved all things technological—video games, his iPad, his three computers—and spent most of his time in his bedroom, a room that might have been designed by a mad scientist as his laboratory. The rest of his time he spent at the school’s Chess Club, or reading; he read a lot!
Dannis wasn’t spoiled like Elle was, but his parents thought he was a genius so they gave him just about everything he wanted as long as he convinced them that he truly needed it, whatever “it” was. But he too had a dream; he wanted an eomgole, and he wanted it bad. But like Elle, his parents were unable to get it for him. So he could only dream.
Until . . .
One morning, Elle and Dannis were each watching television in their separate homes, and an infomercial came on—I know, in the morning?
But that’s when it ran. A pretty, slightly rounded young woman announced, “If you have ever wanted an eomgole, now is your chance!”
Both pairs of ears perked right up.
“For all of you listeners who do not know what an eomgole is, let me explain. An eomgole is a drug-like substance that you cannot get addicted to, that you can keep and use whenever you wish, and that makes the world seem soft and happy.
“RMTV is able to offer an eomgole to one lucky winner, for one time only! All you need to do to win an eomgole is to capture and tame a unicorn within the next four weeks. Do you think you could do that?”
“This offer is being made today only, for just the next ten minutes. If you would like to enter our contest to win an eomgole, you must call the number at the bottom of your screen in the next ten minutes. If we get your call within the next ten minutes, you will be entered in the eomgole contest.”
“As a contestant, you can win an eomgole! And all you have to do is catch and tame a unicorn!”
Neither Dannis nor Elle could believe their ears. An eomgole! Just for calling, and then taming a unicorn. I can do that, Princess Elle told herself confidently; “it should be easy for someone like me.”
She called the number and found herself entered in the contest. After she’d congratulated herself, and called her three best friends to brag to them that she would soon be bringing home an eomgole, she called her parents and told them. Of course they were thrilled.
Well, her mom smiled at her from her laptop screen and sent a smiley-face emoji. Elle did think she sounded mostly happy when she said, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m glad for you. I know you’ve always wanted one. But you know, it can’t be easy to find a unicorn, let alone tame one.”
“Of course not, Mom,” Elle giggled. “If it were easy, they wouldn’t have to have a contest to win it. But you know how good I am at everything, don’t you? I’m definitely going to win it!”
Her mother nodded and smiled, though with just one side of her mouth turned up. “You’ll call Daddy now, won’t you?” she asked.
Elle nodded, and then called her father, who put his hand on his screen as if to give Elle a high-five. Then he lifted one eyebrow, smiled at her and said, “I’m very happy for you, Princess. Now I have to go. Good luck, and take care.”
She secretly looked down on her parents, considering them to be peasants and commoners, and nowhere near equal to her. Shaking her head in despair at their blindness, she began to prepare.
In her prettiest royal purple silk dress, wearing a small tiara in her hair and two diamond rings, she packed an overnight case, brushed out her hair, and set off down to the local movie theater, where the host of the infomercial show had told her to meet.
Dannis called the number on the screen and was told that he had indeed won a place in the contest. He grinned and jumped up and down, then assured his reflection in the mirror, This should be relatively easy; I’m positive I can work out an algorithm to capture a unicorn, with infinite ease.
He called his buddy, Stefan Kraymer, and bragged to him that he would be bringing home an eomgole, explaining how he had come to be entered in the contest. “I’m sorry you didn’t get into the contest but I didn’t have time to call you; it was only open for ten minutes. I’m lucky I got in!”
Stefan grinned and congratulated him, and then asked for details as to how he planned to capture a unicorn. “Do you know where to find one?” he asked.
Dannis shook his head and said, “But it can’t be that hard, can it? I’ll just write an algorithm, or an app for my iPhone, use the GPS, and I shouldn’t have any problem. If I run into anything I can’t handle, I’ll call you.” He chuckled, and his friend grinned and nodded.
“Yeah, okay—you go ahead and call me. I’m sure I can figure it out if you can’t.” They both laughed; being good buddies, they each knew the other’s limitations.
When they hung up, Dannis called his mom and dad on a conference call. They both expressed anxiety that their boy might have bitten off slightly more than he could chew, but he ignored their worries. He told them, “It’s fine; Stef and I are already thinking about an app. Don’t worry.”
He packed a few things in a backpack, checked that he had shampoo and hair product for four weeks (he was a planner by nature, determined never to be caught short), and set off for the library where he and the little round woman from the infomercial had arranged to meet.
When Elle arrived at the movie theater she took a look around the lobby and saw the little round woman standing just beside the ticket box. Elle hadn’t noticed her before now.
The woman saw Elle and beckoned her to the entrance; she introduced herself as Polly and led Elle through the doors. She directed Elle to a seat in the back row, and then sat down beside her and took Elle’s hand.
“You must be prepared to tame the unicorn,” she told Elle. “You will find her in the forest outside of town. Just walk down the path until you’re shaded by trees, and it won’t be long before you see the unicorn.
“I won’t tell you how to tame it; that’s your job. But I will tell you a little about the unicorn that you may not know.”
Elle nodded and smiled to herself, barely listening to the woman; of course she knew all she really needed to know about unicorns. She didn’t worry about what Polly thought of her; Polly couldn’t see her rolling her eyes or sneering in the dark.
“The unicorn munches on the leaves of just a few trees,” Polly said, “and sometimes eats fruit that has dropped. She also drinks water from a clear, icy stream, though you will need to find it yourself. One more thing: the unicorn is skittish, she doesn’t understand people but she is also curious.”
“Okay. She eats leaves and fruit, and drinks from a certain stream,” Elle repeated. “She’s skittish, doesn’t understand people, and is curious.” She nodded. “Got it. Anything else?”
“No,” Polly said. “Now, if you’re ready, go out the Exit door and you’ll be pretty close to the forest entrance.”
“Goodbye,” Elle said as she rose to follow Polly’s directions. When she reached the Exit door she looked back; but there was no one sitting in the back row.
At the library, Dannis sat down at a table near the front door. He had, of course, brought a book with him, so he opened it and began to read. It wasn’t long before he realized someone had sat down at the table across from him. He looked up and saw the woman from the infomercial. He set his bookmark and smiled at Polly, whose name he knew as she had introduced herself on the phone.
“Hello, Polly,” he said. “I’m all ready to go.”
She nodded and smiled, then explained to Dannis, stating as she had told Elle and the other contestants, what to look for when he found the unicorn. Then she directed him to the forest edge, which was out the front door and to the left, about a ten-minute walk.
“I can hardly wait,” Dannis said, more to himself than to Polly. But she smiled and nodded.
When he reached the library’s front door, Dannis glanced back to wave goodbye to Polly, but he saw she must have already gone. He shook his head, realizing that he had not thanked her for her help.
Now, one might believe that Elle had a head start on Dannis, which would not be fair to him if he had known, but in fact all the contestants had somehow been briefed simultaneously.
They met a few steps onto the path and both stopped to wonder at the sight of the other. “I knew you were in this contest, but I’d hoped not to encounter you,” Elle said loftily. “But you don’t seriously believe you’ll find the unicorn before I do!”
“Why not?” Dannis asked slyly. “Who better than someone who can think logically. Oh, but I’ve heard that a unicorn is unable to resist a virgin; is that what you’re counting on?”
Though she was shocked at such a question, Elle countered with, “That’s true, but it’s a girl virgin they prefer, not a boy.”
Dannis declared, “Well, then, I guess there’s no chance it can surrender to either of us, right?”
Elle turned and took a swing at him, convinced she was far more competent than anyone else. “You should just grow a pair and surrender,” she shouted. “It’s me who’ll succeed—you’ll fall flat on your duff.”
He scoffed when her swing missed him. “Well, sorry to inform you, it’s I who will succeed. A ‘make-believe princess’ can find something just by wanting it, isn’t that right? Well, I want it, too, and I have far better resources than you do. My algorithm will get me there long before you find it.”
He couldn’t help feeling a thrill when her face darkened and her lovely chest heaved with anger. He smiled and said, “You don’t even know where to look, do you?”
“No, I don’t have a plan. But so what? My instincts, unlike yours, are honed to a fine point.”
He scoffed and turned to continue walking, and she felt incensed. She pushed past him and, when he stumbled, she sniffed. As she moved further ahead of him, he walked faster and soon glided past her, looking back and scoffing at her.
She tried to walk faster, too, but couldn’t catch up with him. They kept this up for half an hour or so, and then she screamed at his silhouette far ahead of her, and began to cry.
He heard her crying and felt a bit moved, but steeled himself, reminding himself of the goal, and kept walking, ignoring her as best he could.
They kept this up for another half hour and then Elle began to fall back, which Dannis could see out of the corner of his eye. He too faltered just a bit, but they both kept walking for another half hour until Elle really began to droop.
Soon, exhausted, she slumped down against a tree, and then sat on the ground and panted. After a moment, she pulled a canteen from her backpack and drank deeply.
Dannis observed this and slowly returned to approach her. When he could tell she knew he was there, he said, “I have to warn you that you won’t last long if you drink up all your water.”
Elle sniffed and ignored him, turning her head away. Her breathing slowed and Dannis shrugged and turned back to the path. In a few minutes, she rose and started walking again.
After another half hour without any sign of a unicorn, Dannis fell a bit behind Elle and couldn’t help but admire her from the back. She stood very straight, and he saw she had really good posture. Then he thought about her behavior so far, and his anger returned, although not quite as strongly as before.
Suddenly Elle stopped short and shrieked. Dannis startled, rushed up beside her, ready to protect her from whatever might have frightened her. Glaring around, he saw between two trees about ten yards away a large animal that looked like a big yellow cat. He noted that its tail swished back and forth and its ears were flattened against its head. Though he wasn’t much of a cat person, he had an idea that these were signs of hostility in a feline.
He wrapped an arm around Elle’s waist and slowly drew her backwards and into the trees on the opposite side of the trail until he couldn’t see the cat any more. He became aware that Elle was trembling in his arm, and stopped to put his other arm around her and try to comfort her.
“That was a wildcat!” she exclaimed, little of her haughty attitude now in her voice.
“Shhh,” Dannis cautioned. “It might still be in hearing distance. Let’s keep our voices down until we can find a new trail. Okay?”
She sniffled and nodded, and he released her. She stood quietly for a moment, her head down, and then wiped her eyes and turned to gaze around their position.
Dannis was first to spot a barely perceptible trail leading off in a different direction, and he took her hand and drew her toward it. She shook his hand out of hers and set off rapidly along the new trail.
Dannis shrugged and set off after her. They walked deeper into the forest until they both heard the sound of running water. “There’s a stream!” Elle declared, and rushed toward where she thought the sound came from. Dannis followed, and they burst through some shrubbery onto the banks of an icy-looking stream.
“Do you think this is the stream Polly told us about, where the unicorn comes to drink?” Elle asked Dannis.
“It must be,” he said. He squatted down and put his hand in the water and said, “It’s icy cold, all right. Should we just sit here and wait for the unicorn to show up?”
Elle shrugged and sank down into the soft ground cover, shrugging out of her backpack; she looked truly exhausted after walking what must be ten miles. Guessing she wasn’t much for exercising, this was probably the first time she’d ever walked further than from one end of the mall to the other.
Dannis sat down beside her and both sat for a while, catching their breath. Then Dannis shot up abruptly and grabbed a stick lying on the ground nearby. He started slamming the stick down onto the ground near where they were sitting, and Elle jumped up as well.
“What are you doing?” she asked, “Are you insane!”
“A snake!” Dannis yelped. “A rattlesnake!”
Elle jumped away from the tree they’d been sitting under, and her feet slipped out from beneath her. She fell into the water and began floundering.
“It’s c-c-cold!” she yelled. “Help me!” All competitiveness was gone from her voice; he was her only hope.
Although she was already yards from him, Dannis lay on the ground and stretched out over the stream, trying to catch hold of a hand, or her hair, or something. But she was too far away, and was flopping around in the water so much that he couldn’t get hold of her. So he did the only thing he could think of—he dove into the water and swam to her side.
“Grab onto my shoulders,” he shouted at her over the noise of the rushing water. “I can’t get a foothold.”
Thankfully she must have heard him, because she did throw an arm around his neck, almost strangling him. But as soon she threw both arms over his shoulders and clasped her hands together. He was just tall enough to walk on the bottom of the stream until he could grasp a large boulder alongside it and pull himself and Elle out of the water.
“Oh, my God!” Elle gasped as they lay beside one another, trying to slow their breathing. “Thank you for saving my life!”
Dannis shrugged and grinned. She wasn’t quite as aloof as she had been, and he saw again how pretty she really was, especially now that she was so bedraggled.
Her tiara was gone and the lovely purple silk dress was definitely ruined beyond repair. She had also lost one of her shoes in the stream, and the other was in no condition to walk in. Her hair was wet and stringy, and her makeup was smeared. She felt like crying, but quickly realized that would do her no good. And they still had to find the unicorn.
“Listen,” Dannis said, “what do you say we join forces. The two of us will have a better chance of finding the unicorn if we work together. We’ll work out the details later, once we do find the unicorn. Okay?”
After thinking about it for a moment, Elle nodded. Maybe she was grateful that Dannis wasn’t just going ahead without her.
They sat silently for a long moment, and then Dannis said, “I’m sorry.”
“What for?” she asked. “You’re no more guilty of anything than I am; and in fact I think I might be more guilty than you. You wouldn’t have stayed with me, I think, if you weren’t such a good guy. And if you’d left me to go on my own, I might have been torn apart by that cat, and if I wasn’t, I’d probably be bitten by that snake, or drowned in the stream. So thank you, again, and I’m sorry.”
Dannis smiled quietly and kept looking at his hands, and eventually she smiled as well. “Okay,” he said, “why don’t we just work together, like I said?”
She nodded. “Okay,” she said, pulling her backpack on, and they stood and began walking alongside the stream.
When they passed a tree with the leaves Polly had told him were the unicorn’s favorite, Dannis pulled down a few branches and stored them away in his pack. “Just in case we do see the unicorn,” he said.
Just past these trees, they came to an orchard with several different kinds of fruit, many of which were lying on the ground, a bit overripe. Elle nodded to herself, and picked up three or four of them and put them in her pack. “And these are the fruits the unicorn likes to eat,” she told Dannis.
As they kept walking, Elle thought about how many times on this hunt Dannis had rescued her, or saved her life. She couldn’t help but wonder why he would have done that since they were in competition for the prize. She snuck a sideways look at him as he walked by her side, and noted that he was quite a bit better looking than she remembered. She knew they were the same age, and she could remember numerous times since they’d met as toddlers when they had visited one another and had a great time. But in the past few years, she recalled, Dannis had made fun of her, had laughed at her, had teased her a number of times about being haughty and what he called “conceited.”
She wasn’t conceited, she thought, only confident. But Dannis had scoffed at that when they turned twelve and entered Middle School. That, of course, had led to distancing herself more and more from him. So she believed they detested one another. But right now, she couldn’t identify the feelings she had about him except that she didn’t think they were hate, or even dislike.
“I wonder why we haven’t spotted a unicorn yet,” Dannis said, interrupting her pondering. “We’ve been looking for nearly three hours, and Polly told me we’d most likely see the unicorn pretty quickly.”
“Yes,” Elle said, “that’s what she told me. But you’re right; we should have seen one already. Do you suppose we’re making too much noise, or that we’re on the wrong path? Do you suppose we’re scaring any unicorns away?”
“Hmm,” Dannis mused. He nodded, and stopped walking. Elle stopped a few steps ahead of him and turned to study him.
“What?” she asked.
He nodded again, and said, “What if we split up, and looked for a unicorn alone? Do you suppose we might have more luck?”
She nodded also, but she thought, I don’t want to go on alone; I want to stay with him. But why would she think that? He was, after all, her competition, and she dearly wished to win this contest. And she knew he did, too. Confusion put a frown on her face, and she couldn’t think what to say.
Dannis saw the confusion and frowned. Was she wondering about some way of tricking him so that she would find the unicorn before he did? He didn’t like that idea, and thought, Maybe we should stay together. Surprisingly, this thought made him feel warm and shivery at once. Why would that be? he asked himself.
Neither of them seemed capable of making a decision about whether to split up, and so they began walking again. In a few steps, they found themselves inching closer to one another, and both of them could feel their heartbeats increase, even though they were walking no faster than they had been.
Dannis turned toward Elle in order to observe the trees they were passing, he told himself, and then the thought that she was really pretty came to him. Since there was no reason he would have noticed that he tried to ignore it, but the thought kept coming back, even as he turned to look at the trees on his side of the path.
After they’d been walking again for nearly an hour, Elle glanced at her watch and said, “When should we stop and eat lunch? It’s well past midday.”
Dannis suddenly realized his thoughts had been on Elle, rather than on either the unicorn, lunch, or the eomgole they were both hoping to win. He stopped walking and turned to look at Elle again, and this time he gasped. She’s really beautiful, he told himself. How did I not see that before?
Neither of them said anything for a long moment, just standing on the path and gazing at one another. Finally, Dannis sighed and removed his backpack, and then Elle pulled hers off, too. They sank down beneath a large tree alongside the trail and pulled sandwiches out.
After a relatively silent lunch as each of them studied the grass, the nearby trees, the clouds, the path, and the dense forest across from them without speaking, Dannis rose at the same time as Elle did. They somehow found themselves facing one another. Elle smiled and put her hand out toward him, and he took it in his.
Then he reached for her other hand, and they found themselves moving closer and closer together. After a long moment of gazing into one another’s eyes, Dannis leaned down and gently kissed her, then pulled back. “Is it okay if I kiss you?” he asked.
Elle grinned and put one hand behind his head, drew it down to hers and kissed him deeply. Without discussing it further, they sank back down beneath the tree and spent a little while kissing and gazing deep into each other’s eyes.
After some time—neither knew how long—their attention was drawn to a strange boy as he walked past them on the path. They agreed that neither of them knew him, but they watched as he walked to where they almost couldn’t see him, and then they watched some more as a beautiful pink unicorn walked out of the forest and right to the stranger. It seemed startled to see the boy, but Dannis and Elle could see him making soothing sounds and gestures, and slowly moving toward the animal until it gentled and allowed him to stroke its mane.
Elle sighed, and whispered to Dannis, “Well, I guess he wins the contest.”
Dannis nodded, and then slipped his arm around Elle and they went back to the business of falling in love. Winning the contest no longer seemed so important to either of them.
But suddenly their attention was drawn to the stranger up ahead, and the unicorn. They were shocked to see the unicorn rear up and wave her front legs in the air; then they heard a tinkling, like tiny bells and realized it was the unicorn whinnying. The stranger quickly stepped out of range of the hooves, and then they saw that he had a rod of some kind and was pointing it at the unicorn. A moment later, a spark emerged from the end of the rod and struck the unicorn’s breast. It whinnied again, and then its hooves came down very near the boy and it bucked several times, turning wildly in a circle. The boy was apparently startled and frightened, Elle thought, and he backed away and then turned and ran off,
The teens looked at one another in amazement, and a moment later the unicorn had pranced up to them as they stood staring at the clearing,
Elle exclaimed, “Oh, no, what if it attacks us!” She backed up to the tree they had been sitting beneath, and Dannis moved to put himself in front of her, between her and the unicorn. But the animal was apparently calm now, and not at all threatening. It stood quietly in front of Dannis, and then whinnied its little tinkling sound again, but this time not sounding at all panicked like it had before.
After a long moment, Elle stood again and moved up to stand beside Dannis, who took her hand. She had in her hand one of the fruits she had picked up earlier, and she held it out toward the unicorn; it snorted and plucked the fruit out of her hand, and stood gazing at her and eating.
As it ate, Dannis said, “Do you think it will follow us?”
Nodding, Elle answered, “I think it will. Let’s just start walking back, and see if it comes along.”
So they turned and started back down the path, and then looked at one another in amazement as they heard the swishing motion of the unicorn as it moved along behind them.
They walked like this for a while, Elle passing back the other fruits she carried and Dannis sharing the leaves he’d collected, until they approached the city.
“Oh, Dannis,” Elle cried. “Look! There’s Polly.”
Indeed, Polly stood waiting for them beside the theater door with a big smile, and there were cameras and reporters clustered behind her. A loud note of cheering came to them, and they both stopped to look at one another in astonishment.
“I guess you and I will have to share the eomgole,” Dannis said. “Is that okay with you?”
“Absolutely,” Elle said, squeezing her new lover’s hand and turning to pet the unicorn.