The parking lot is covered in a foot of storm water, and the wind whips up waves like it’s a sea. I’ve no idea how we’re going to get to the service station—or what we’re going to find once we’re inside.
Beside me, Reg shifts, his lined face twitching and flickering like it has a life of its own. “Think we should do it?” he mutters.
I jerk my head in a nod that feels precariously like falling. “Of course we should do it.”
He rearranges the shotgun under his trench coat, and we set out.
The dark concrete of the parking lot turns the water inky grey, and oil slicks float on the surface. It seeps into my boots, icy cold fingers that set me shivering even through the garbage bags I’m wearing under my trousers as waterproof knee-high socks. The wind cuts through my thin coat—it doesn’t help that one sleeve has nearly been torn off and the buttons are all missing—and all that, combined with the hunger gnawing in my stomach, is almost enough to make me wish we hadn’t set out on this foolhardy adventure in the first place. Sadly, when you’re hunting a unicorn, there’s no stopping till it’s dead—or you are.
Reg trudges resignedly on, heavy steps sloshing and splashing the foul water, and I follow. All over town is like this now: half submerged, water leeching oil and tar and carbon monoxide and other cloying chemicals from the buildings. It’s only been a week, but already the southlands are crumbling; their concrete was cheap, sand-filled stuff, the bricks half-backed clay, and none of it is strong enough to withstand the onslaught.
One of Reg’s splashes catch me on the cheek, and I reel for a moment as the water zaps me like electricity. I wipe it off with the back of my sleeve, knowing that where it’s gone, my skin will be left glowing and fresh. I can totally understand why the first victims fell willingly, bathing themselves in water that seemed to create perfection. Thank heavens I have goggles.
The wind brings steel-coloured clouds that boil overhead, and I prod Reg in the back. “Storm’s coming,” I say.
He glances up, exhales through his nostrils, and carries on.
A downpour will be the end of us if we don’t find shelter—but we’re close now, touchingly close, and we couldn’t break away even if we tried.
The service station looms ahead, casting a shadow even in this dim, directionless light. It’s a toad hulking in the corner of its pond, waiting for a fly to mistake it for a boulder, ready to dart out its tongue and consume the unwary. Light radiates from windows that are crystal clear, dripping sludge marks below their panes the only remnants of their former dirt-and-oil coatings. Somewhere in there, working to purify the whole damn world, is the unicorn.
We duck under the shelter of the awning right as the rains begin. As usual, they’re torrential, a flash downpour that blocks the senses: everything is grey, rushing water, the smell of wet concrete and oil.
I cock my head; underneath the roar of the water, something else is groaning. I glance up. “Look out!” I tackle Reg to the ground and roll, and the collapsing roof misses us by inches. We’re stuck between the wreckage and the building now, and all I can see is the pitted, metal girders that have twisted and torn.
“You right?” I ask Reg, offering him a hand.
Muttering under his breath, he ignores me and shoves himself to his feet. He resets his bucket hat on his greying head, adjusts the shotgun, and tightens the sash on his trench coat.
Once I’m sure he’s okay, I pull my own coat tighter around me and fold my arms to stop it flapping. The comforting weight of the frabah powder weighs down my pocket.
Our eyes meet. It’s time to go in. With a deep inhale, I place my palms against the sparkling glass door of the service centre.
Reg stands shoulder to shoulder with me. “Go on, then, lass.”
I push. Sweet, fresh air wafts out to meet us; the unicorn must have been here a while.
We ease ourselves through the door and stand staring at the aisles. Water covers the floor here too, though not as deeply, and instead of deathly grey it’s brilliant: rainbow hued, swirled like a Paddle Pop of old—though in a strange way that twists the mind, ‘of old’ is only last week.
On the shelf next to the door, just to our right, a chip packet has survived unscathed. Halfway down the aisle in front of us, a packet of Tim Tams seems intact. I wade over to the ice cream freezer and peer in. It’s a riot of colour from the plastic and the ice creams, and chocolate sludge coats the inside. The glass that covers it, though, is pristine.
I push my goggles up and wipe my hands up my face then back down over my eyes. I’m tired. This has to end. Maybe if we’d been out bush this wouldn’t have mattered so much; if we hadn’t lived in a jungle of concrete and steel, artificial chemicals and preservatives that pervade all the food we have, maybe the unicorn wouldn’t have mattered.
But we don’t. If we’re purified, we’ll die.
A noise sounds behind the counter. Reg and I whip around in the same instant, and light, blinding, glorious, perfect light, streams out from the unicorn and burns my eyes. I throw up my arms to shield them against it and the shotgun barks beside me, once, twice, and again.
That’s my cue. I dart my eyes open for an instant to check that the way is clear, and then running blind I sprint towards the counter—towards the unicorn that is our death. I wrap my hand about the pure hemp bag holding the organic herbs that, crushed together, make frabah powder. I can feel the unicorn’s power burning me; my tatty, filthy clothes fall away, first the coat, then my shirt and pants, the garbage bags, and finally my elastane-blended sports bra. Thank heavens I went for cotton undies. But I’ve no time to be embarrassed (and I’ve nothing that’ll bounce anyway), because the light is burning my skin now—though at least if I come out of this alive I’ll be unicorn-bathed, my skin flawless and glowing.
But I’m at the counter, and I launched myself over it, scrabbling on the little shelves that once held chocolate bars. I’m kneeling on it and the unicorn, blindingly white, pure bliss, perfection incarnate, stands before me, eyeing me with one glorious golden eye before swinging its deadly point towards me. I reach into hemp bag, grab a handful of powder, and as the unicorn stabs I toss. The powder sticks to the unicorn like glue.
It freezes, death-point half an inch from goring my stomach. My heart’s pounding in my ears so loud I can’t even hear the rain any more. The unicorn’s glow turns gold. All over it, hairline cracks run likes spiders, faster and faster and faster until—
The unicorn shatters like crystal. The chime of it sounds through the air and I cringe, hands over my ears. A sharp pain pops in my left air and my hand comes away wet with blood. Crystal shards rain down, slicing into my skin.
Something sweeps over me and I struggle wildly, but it’s Reg, covering me with the coat he’s stripped out of, and the noise I can here in my good ear is just the alarm system of the building as he helps me down off the counter.
I stand beside him, shivering. The ceiling drips, rainbow water swirls around our feet, and outside the rain has stopped. Something golden burst through the window and my heart stops for a second because it looks like the last light of the unicorn—but it’s just sunshine, and already the window it shines through is grimier, and the water in the parking lot’s clearing.
Reg grunts and hands me that last chip packet. “Okay, lass?”
I nod, accepting it. “Okay.”