The throbbing at the base of Joey Mac’s skull was dull, and it radiated to his temples as consciousness crept in like a thick fog slowly dissipating. His body felt stiff and uncooperative, and at first, he feared he might be paralyzed. But when his heavy eyelids fluttered open and his vision finally sharpened, he saw he was bound to a chair in a dimly lit room. Cold metal handcuffs bit into his wrists, and his heart raced as he tried to make sense of the situation. The last thing he remembered before waking up in this room was driving home from his job. Was he involved in an accident? Had he been arrested? “Oh, God,” he thought, “I hope no one got hurt.”
The room was small and windowless, with walls painted a drab, institutional gray. The air was heavy with the scent of damp concrete and a faint trace of mildew. The only source of light was a single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, casting ominous shadows that danced across the walls as it swayed gently.
The floor was rough concrete, stained with the evidence of past interrogations. In front of him was a metal table, its surface marred with scratches and dents, bearing silent testimony to countless previous encounters. On the opposite side of the table sat a metal chair with a straight back and thin cushion, probably matching the one he was bound to.
The heavy steel slab door creaked open, and a woman in her late forties wearing an earth-toned shirt, cargo pants, and sturdy boots entered the room. Her shoulder-length chestnut hair, streaked with silver, was pulled back into a loose ponytail. Although she had a stern face, she didn’t strike Joey as the cop type. He guessed that came in handy as an undercover detective.
“Joseph MacDonal II,” she said, glaring at him with steel-gray eyes, framed by crow’s feet. As she sat down across from him, Joey noticed how weathered her face was, furrows etched across her forehead and around her mouth in what his mother used to call experience lines.
“For the record, I go by Joey Mac,” Joey said. “My head’s a little foggy. Can you tell me where I am, how I got here, and why I’m being detained?”
“You’re here to answer for your crimes. The senseless slaughter of innocent creatures!”
“Aw jeez, you’re not a cop, you’re with that PETA thing.”
“PAUTU,” she corrected. “People Against the Unethical Treatment of Unicorns.”
“Okay, look, you people have got the wrong idea…”
“You’re responsible for unicorn genocide!”
“I’m a butcher! Bo͝oCHər. A person whose trade is cutting up and selling meat in a shop. And yes, I am one of the few people on the planet trained and licensed to butcher unicorns and prepare their meat for consumption, but my license doesn’t include or even allow me to hunt or slaughter unicorns or any other animals. Look it up, it’s a matter of public record. In fact, I never killed a thing in my life. Insects that cross my path are the subject of a strict catch, relocate, and release system.”
“Given your current situation, you would say that, wouldn’t you?”
“I’m saying it because it’s the truth! The problem with people like you, all holier-than-thou and shoving their causes in everyone’s face, is that you only see your narrow point of view! You have no idea what the real truth is, and you can’t have the real truth without knowing the whole story, which in this case includes my side of the story!”
“All right then, Mister I-Wouldn’t-Harm-A-Fly, let’s hear it, your side of the story.”
The economy had been in the crapper since before God talked to Moses, and Joey hadn’t worked in forever. Even though he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to do what analysts suggested and set aside six months’ worth of salary in a high-yield account before he was made redundant at the meatpacking plant, now, going on his tenth year, all that money was little more than a distant memory.
A Christian in name more than practice, it had been years since the soles of his shoes touched the floor of a church, and that time was his best friend’s wedding, a wife twice removed. To say Joey was out of practice with the proper act of prayer would have been an understatement. His first attempt came off as more of a bitch session, with him blaming his parents for his rotten upbringing and lambasting society for its prejudice of gingers, which, he reckoned, was the chief reason for his being kept down by the man. Surprisingly, he saw no results.
His second attempt at prayer was akin to a letter to Santa, in which he listed all the positive things he’d ever done in life and expected a little compensation for his good behavior. Again, results were not forthcoming.
Third time was the charm, however, when he realized that he should have admitted his sin, expressed thanks for the things he had, and humbly requested the one thing he needed most: a job.
He put no expectation on the prayer and went about his normal daily existence when, a week later, he received a phone call. It seemed that a friend of a friend knew a guy who knew a guy who had a roommate who was related to a woman who owned her own business and was looking for someone in his line of work.
Joey arrived at the interview, résumé in hand, and launched into his well-rehearsed spiel when the businesswoman waved him off and ushered him into a small changing room.
“Inside you will find a locker for your clothing and possessions,” said the woman who hadn’t bothered giving her name. “As well as a uniform that we are legally required to provide for health and sanitation reasons. Should you refuse to wear said uniform, this interview will be terminated immediately.”
The first thought to cross his mind was that this operation was some sort of mob set up where he was being taken to a back room to chop up an informant or some poor slob who inadvertently crossed one of the families. Every instinct screamed for him to pivot on his heels and beat a hasty retreat, but… curiosity got the better of him. He had to see what this crazy thing was all about.
The first thing he noticed when he entered the tiny room was the uniform hanging on a hook. It was striking, unlike any garment he had ever seen. The material’s iridescent sheen and ever-shifting pastel hues immediately captured his attention and fed his ravenous curiosity.
The uniform was surprisingly lightweight and smooth to the touch, with a texture that felt almost ethereal. It gave off a faint yet pleasant scent, reminiscent of a mixture of fresh dew, wildflowers, and a hint of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on – a smell that seemed to evoke a sense of tranquility and peace.
Joey slipped into the uniform and noticed how it felt tailored specifically for him, fitting his body like a second skin. The fabric was both soft and supple, providing unmatched comfort and ease of movement.
When Joey stepped out of the changing room, the woman gave him a quick once-over and remarked, “Perfect fit,” before escorting him into an immaculate, temperature-controlled butchery, equipped with knives, cleavers, saws, and all the necessary tools.
In one corner of the room, a man stood, clipboard in hand, his eyes focused on Joey with an air of scrutiny.
“Who’s he?” Joey asked, nodding in the direction of the silent observer.
“Pay him no mind,” she said dismissively. “He’s merely here to observe your performance and assess your technique.”
“No pressure,” Joey said.
“None at all, as far as I’m concerned,” the woman answered.
Joey refrained from giving her a look and instead turned his attention to the two animal sides that hung from meat hooks. “You’re serving chevaline?” he asked.
“That isn’t horse,” the woman smirked.
“Then what is it?”
“Answers later. For now, what cuts could you make from that?”
“That’s simple: tenderloin from the spine, ribeye from the ribs, sirloin from the hindquarters, brisket from the chest, shank from the lower leg, flank from the abdomen, top and bottom round from the rear leg, chuck from the shoulder, and short ribs, of course. Those are just a few examples. Any butcher worth their weight would be able to make use of those sides, ensuring minimal waste and maximum culinary potential.”
“Show me what you can do,” she gestured at a section of meat, a shank, by the look of it, that rested atop the large butcher block countertop.
Joey inspected the meat before touching a utensil. She was right; this wasn’t horse, and it also wasn’t beef, pork, or lamb. The texture was something he had never encountered before. It had a grain-like quality similar to beef, yet it was soft to the touch like flan, and it shimmered without a light source as if it were bioluminescent. “What is this?” he asked.
“Are you interested in the job or not? I don’t have all day,” she drummed her fingers on her crossed arms.
Joey sighed, selected a knife from the butcher block, and approached the slab of meat, much in the same manner a sculptor would approach a block of marble, envisioning the cuts before the blade touched the flesh. With no idea what type of animal he was dealing with, there was no way of telling how this woman expected it to be prepared, so he simply followed his instincts and let the meat “talk” to him. And in a way, it did.
Every time the stainless steel edge portioned the strange meat, Joey thought he heard a high-pitched tone, like the sound of a moistened finger running along the rim of a crystal goblet. The sound broke his heart. But in the aftermath, when the tone was just about to become inaudible, he heard a voice inside his head. It said two words:
He felt as if permission had been granted. This did not relieve the wave of guilt that flooded over him, but it gave him the desire to do something with his own life worthy of this unknown animal’s sacrifice.
When he was done, the businesswoman nodded her approval. “Every bit the professional you claimed to be.” And it was a professional job. Every cut was perfect, neither too generous nor too small, and there were absolutely no scraps. He utilized every last bit of the meat.
The businesswoman glanced over at the silent observer, who looked up from his clipboard and gave a slight nod before leaving the room.
“I’m curious, what type of meat is this?”
“Unicorn,” she said very matter-of-factly.
“You heard me.”
“I don’t get the gag,” Joey inwardly chastised himself on his tone. If his dumb mouth cost him the job, he’d…
“I’m quite serious,” the woman took him by the upper arm in a grip tighter than he was comfortable with and led him through a maze of stairwells and corridors, down, down, so far down beneath street level that he expected to see passage markers scratched into the walls by Arne Saknussemm.
Their destination was a room designed to look like a field, complete with grass, trees, and rocks. Had he been blindfolded and dropped here, Joey would have sworn he was outside. The room was so vast, he couldn’t see the far wall. The only telltale sign that this was, in fact, an indoor facility were the track lights that provided sunlight, positioned incredibly high overhead, but even they were mostly obscured by the clouds of the room’s self-contained weather system. But as fascinating as all this was, by far the most mind-blowing thing was the unicorns grazing in the field.
Not. The. End.