The Upset

Rex watched the dial spin as the Powers That Be selected his team’s foe. Their rank was low, so their opponent would be powerful. But maybe not unbeatable, Rex thought, watching the wheel slow. His heart sank as the flapper landed on Unicorns. Bloody Unicorns. Uptight, arrogant, can’t-help-but-adore-them bluebloods of the human imagination.

Pix, the saner of Rex’s two teammates, groaned and buried his face in his claws. “Well,” Pix said, “that’s it for Team Chupacabara this year.”  Mynx, his other teammate, only drooled and whined.

“Wait, wait!” Rex said. “We don’t have our Target human yet. It’s not over.” An aging conspiracy theorist or nerdy teenager might be more enchanted by a cryptozoology cast-off than a Unicorn. Maybe…

Three muzzles turned anxiously toward the second wheel floating in the starry void of netherspace. The invisible Powers That Be spun this one too and the back spikes of Team Chupacabara bristled in anticipation, with luminous, bulging eyes fixed on the flapper.

As it slowed, a bright, oval window to the human world opened in the void and the three shielded their eyes from the sudden light. The blurry image in the window came into focus as the wheel stopped. There she was. Their human. She had brown, almond-shaped eyes and her sleek, black hair was tied up in pink hair bows.

Rex heard Mynx giggle a mirthless gallows laugh. The Chupacabaras, weird monsters who drank livestock blood at night, had been pitted against Unicorns in a contest to capture the imagination of a little girl. At stake was only what all magical creatures craved and required for existence: some attention from the Human Imagination, their only god.

Rex realized with annoyance that in some other holding pocket in netherspace Team Unicorn was also watching this human girl through an oval window. They would know who they were playing against and they would be exulting.

“You may pick any toy, sweetheart,” came the voice from the window. Feminine. The Target’s mother or aunt or grandmother. Rex scanned the oval for clues. Shelves behind the girl has stuffed kittens and blocks. A toy store.

The image panned around. The Powers That Be liked to give the teams a feel for the Target human’s upcomming choice. Sometimes it was which movie or book. Sometimes the Target was picking wallpaper for their desktop computer.

In the oval in front of him, Rex saw unicorn toys. Hundreds of them. Different varieties, different mane and tail colors. Some plush, some plastic. Some plush ones were fluffy, others velvety. Some plastic toys were hard plastic, others softer. Some squeaked.

Then he saw where the Target’s choice lay. There, amid the magical creature plushies (dragons, chimeras, mermaids, and of course unicorns), there was an oddly cute bug-eyed, plush monster with clawed arms and back spines. The only toy Chupacabara he’d ever seen. Rex stared hard, trying to memorize the scene, hoping he’d find a helpful clue. The contest wasn’t supposed to be hopeless. Then the oval went dark.

Rex sagged. There was so much on his shoulders. It had been so long since the human imagination had turned toward Chupacabaras. His whole species was beginning to feel drained and forgotten.

“It’s okay Rex.” Pix was saying.  “Nobody back home expects us to win.”

“Then why did they send me?” Rex asked. Rex was his species’ champion. Chupacabaras were born, as all magical creatures are born, when the Human Imagination explained a mystery by telling a really good story (Q: Why are my goats dead and full of holes? A: Magical Beast!).

But one human’s story isn’t enough. The Powers That Be give new proto-creatures one chance to spread their story and solidify themselves as real imaginary creatures. And Rex was the reason the Chupacabaras passed the test.

“You’re our best shot.” Pix said. Then the invisible floor dropped out from under them and the netherspace stars streaked through Rex’s vision. He felt like he was going to vomit. Rex closed his eyes and focused on not losing the very tasty sheep juices he’d consumed before the contest. Then the falling feeling stopped.

***

Rex opened his eyes and gawked at the figures that faced his team from behind three maple wood podiums across the bare, white-walled room. He knew what a unicorn looked like, of course, but being in the presence of three unicorns was overwhelming. Majesty. Legend. Innocence. Wisdom. Power. The Ideas that comprised Unicorns washed over Rex and his team. They were so perfect. Rex longed to surrender to them here and now. This was the power that being beloved by Human Imagination granted. Beside him, Pix wet himself in fear.

“I wonder what unicorn blood tastes like.” Rex turned in surprise. It was Mynx who had spoken. She rarely spoke, but whatever she said was usually related to her carnivorousness. “Probably spicier than goats.”

The Unicorns’ faces never changed, but an air of mild distain permeated their auras.

“We’ll never know, Mynx,” said Pix. “Because the tourney is a clash of wit and charm.” Mynx didn’t look like she understood.

“But the rules have no prohibitions against biting,” Mynx pointed out. Rex hadn’t realized Mynx could read.

“It’s a debate!” Said Pix. “Rules about biting shouldn’t need writing down.” The tournament offered two teams of creatures an open shot at a mortal’s imagination for five minutes. Point and counterpoint in turns. Which creature was more awesome.

“That’s the Powers’ mistake,” said Mynx and took a snarling, salivating step toward the beautiful immortals.

“Cool it Mynx,” said Rex.

But even as he spoke, the middle Unicorn stepped from behind her podium in a graceful move and lowered her horn at the approaching half-mad Chupacabara.

“Enough!” said the middle Unicorn. The Team Captain, likely. “We can have a dignified contest of the mind here today. I know we can. But if you insist on … earthier … competition, be assured we’ll make short work of you.”

Mynx stopped in her tracks. Her short tail curled under her and her back spines drooped. She scurried to her podium, reeking of fear pheromone.

Right. Rex thought. Never forget that for all their prettiness and sparkles, a Unicorn is still a thousand year old magic caster with a stabby thing on its forehead.

Whatever Mynx may have been thinking, Team Chupacabara couldn’t win this with muscle. The Dragons could pull that off—in fact they had once. They’d eaten the Bigfoots at the opening of one debate. Upon review, the move had been deemed legitimate because swallowing other legendary creatures whole was considered an argument in favor of the Dragons’ coolness—but the Chupacabaras could never get away with something like that. The Unicorns wouldn’t stoop to violence, though. They didn’t have to. They were Unicorns, after all.

The only way was to reach the little girl’s imagination in a way the Unicorns could not. Rex had been studying the Holy Texts of Imagination for months. He kept a copy in his fanny pack and would read it while sipping alpaca blood. The only thing he’d learned from it for certain was that humans were both predictable and unpredictable.

“BEGIN!” came a reverberating, disembodied voice and the white wall of the debate room split to reveal the oval window to the little girl. What was going to reach her imagination?  Rex wondered. He didn’t have much time to figure it out.

***

“Unicorns are beautiful,” said the Unicorn on the left. She said it matter-of-factly. As though beauty should carry weight in an argument. Rex thought. But when you were as beautiful as a Unicorn…

“POINT” said the voice. Rex gulped. Points were assigned when a human agreed with the statement. Each team could send three arguments into the human’s mind before halftime and three after. Rex hadn’t thought of a single thing to say to the girl. He needed time to plan!

“Er…Um…” He was drawing a blank. “Chupacabaras, uh, look nice too.”

“NO POINT.” Said the voice. The girl did not agree.

“We look nice too?” Pix hissed at him under his breath.

“It’s okay,” Rex hissed back. “Points only means she agrees. Just a way to gage our Target’s openness to certain ideas.”

“Unicorns are good and gentle creatures,” said the Team Captain of the Unicorns

“POINT.”

“Chupacabaras can drink the blood of so many things!” Mynx said.

“Mynx! Keep quiet!” Pix said.

“POINT.”

“See?” she said. “I got us a point!” Poor thing looked so proud of herself.

“Points don’t mean winning,” Rex hissed. “They mean the Target agrees. We won’t know who wins until the final decision.”

“All your friends love Unicorns.” Said the Unicorn on the right.

“POINT.”

This was it. Their last chance before halftime.

“Unfair!” Pix barked at the Unicorn on the right. “None of her friends have even heard of a Chupacabara,”

“POINT.”

“Wait! No!” Pix cried. “That wasn’t my rebuttal! No!”

But Rex noticed a curious look creep over the girl’s face. Chupacabaras were a novelty. Rex knew novelty counted for a lot in the world of Human Imagination. On occasion, it even rivaled Legend…Though it didn’t last as long, he thought ruefully.

“HALFTIME.”

The final statement echoed in the air and a starry curtain of void descended from the ceiling, separating the two teams for their halftime conference. Halftime would take place outside of time. The teams would strategize what to say to win the Target over.  Pix buried his face in his claws and his back spines drooped.

***

“This isn’t going well,” he said. Pix and Mynx were slumped in their ‘locker room’ half of the tournament room. Rex was pacing back and forth, toe claws clicking on the gleaming, white floor. So much was riding on his shoulders. Again.

“No no!” said Rex. “This isn’t hopeless. I’m more of a halftime coach anyway. We can figure this out. Did you guys pick up any clues from the images of the girl that could help? Think!”

“What’s there to think about?” said Pix. “It’s a little girl surrounded by toy unicorns and one dumb plush Chupacabara. This was over before it began.”

“Look, the tournament isn’t supposed to be outright hopeless. There has to be something,” said Rex.

“So how did you do it?” Asked Pix. “Back in 1995 when we were just a proto-thing. A story told by one woman with dead sheep who watched too much sci-fi.”

We’re so young, Rex thought. Most creatures date back at least a century. The Unicorns were at least King Arthur old. And Dragons! Sheesh. Old as humans themselves. 1995 was so inglorious. Everything about Chupacabaras was inglorious.

“It was luck,” Said Rex. “The Powers That Be selected Silverio Perez, a Puerto Rican comedian/musician/writer as our Target for our first test. I couldn’t have hoped for more creative potential in a Target! I remembered a quote from the Holy Texts. ‘He who laughs, lasts.’ Mary Pettibone Poole. We needed to last. I whispered to Perez the name of our people. Chupacabaras, ‘goat-suckers.’ Not glorious, but funny. And memorable. Word of us spread and we became a legendary creature. An urban legendary creature, but a legend all the same.  And we stuck around.”

“We stuck around and sucked!” said Mynx. Rex frowned. Was that a trace of sarcasm? He couldn’t be sure with Mynx.

“We just need to figure out what will stick in our Target’s imagination,” said Rex. “What is going to make us a better option than the Unicorns.”

“Well the unicorn toys looked stupid,” said Mynx. “The Chupacabara looked much better.”

“Yeah, to you maybe,” said Pix.

Mynx could be onto something, Rex thought. He closed his eyes and visualized his memory of the girl in the toy store. The unicorn plushies in his mind’s eye were indeed poorly-manufactured. The plastic figures had legs that wouldn’t stand properly and the plastic was not quality. But the Chupacabara was kind of … cute.

“She’s right,” Rex said. “Artists have been getting sloppy of late with their unicorn toys. Too much success bred laziness. But the Chupacabara toy is something new, so its creators did an excellent job. Look.”

With his mind, Pix pulled up a window in their ‘locker room’ with a diagram of the human brain. Rex was in his element now. He was a nerd and this involved looking things up.

“This is our chance. The toy Chupacabara has the elements that make something cute to a human. Big head to body ratio, round face, a large forehead, and big eyes. These features enter the visual cortex and two things happen. First, the nucleus accumbens releases dopamine, a pleasure hormone. And second, the orbitofrontal cortex is activated. This part is responsible for decision-making. This makes humans decide something is cute, feel happy about it, and want to care for the cute thing.”

The other two looked clueless.

“So, our toy looks snugglier than the Unicorns. She’ll be more motivated to take care of it.”

“Oh!” The other two said in chorus.

“But Rex,” said Pix. “How will that help her pick our toy?”

Good question. She’ll want to care for it more. But part of the Unicorns’ attractiveness to a little girl was that they represented power, grace, and gateways to new worlds. Rex looked at the toys in his memory image. It had been a mistake for the artists to craft such over-glittered, over-fluffed unicorns. He could picture a slick toymaker executive approving of these toys. Rex heard his smarmy voice say ‘Look at these purdy uni-corns, girls. All rainbows and sparkles, just like you little darlins like ‘em.”

How could the toymakers not understand? Constantly the wide world shouted a silent admonition to little girls: Be docile! Be pretty! Be spunky! Thinner! Smarter! Better at sports! Change yourself to fit expectations! Little girls were never good enough as they were. When a girl felt content with herself for a moment, the silent pressure demanded: Who do you think you are? You think you’re better than the others?

What little girl wouldn’t want to toss her head, whinny, and gallop to a new world as fast as she could go? Mane and tail flying behind her and the raw magic of a billion wishes pumping through her veins as she ran. The toymakers had no idea how far short they had fallen of what Unicorns truly meant to little girls.

“Wait,” Rex said suddenly. “If our best hope lies in the artistic difference between the toys, we ought to consult the Holy Texts.”

The Holy Texts were passages from human writings. Things said by storytellers, artists, scientists and philosophers that offered insights, however obliquely, into how the human imagination worked. The cobbled-together volume was about the size and thickness of a solid cinder block. And Rex had read it all.

He opened his fanny pack and pulled out his copy. He started flipping through his favorite passages and quoted to his team.

“’Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’ Albert Einstein.” Rex paused and looked up at the other two.

“That’s nice. But it’s not immediately obvious to me how that’s going to help us with the little girl,” said Pix.

“Okay, I’ll try another one,” said Rex. Since artists were involved with the toys, maybe a passage by an artist. “Here,” he said. ‘Every block of stone has a stature inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’ Michelangelo.” He looked up again, hoping.

“Mmmmm,” said Mynx. “I am not too smart, but that doesn’t make any sense.”

“No. You’re right. We need something applicable to our Target’s situation. She’s in a toy store,” said Rex.

“Look in the index?” Pix suggested.

Rex could have kicked himself. Of course. He’d been relying only on his own memory of the texts. Feeling stupid, Rex looked under ‘toy’ in the index. There were quite a few entries, but one passage made one of his neurons spark and wiggle, trying to direct his attention. He flipped the pages of his giant holy book. It was unwieldy in his claws, but Rex was a practiced page-turner.

The Velveteen Rabbit. Rex cleared his throat and read: “‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’”

“The Skin Horse sounds delicious,” said Mynx, drooling a little.  “I should like to drink from him.”

“It says Skin Horse. Not Blood Horse,” said Pix.

“Guys,” said Rex, “This is it. I have studied humans. Toys are the tools human children to build imaginary realities.  They’re usually not taken seriously enough, but they are the first tools of the imagination. As they grow, humans move on to use paints, words, physics, buildings, and governments to give shape to their imaginations. But only after they’ve mastered these toys first. And toys become real to them, just like we creatures of legend become real. It seems so simple, but a kid in a toy store is really the primordial soup of imagination.”

The other two looked at Rex with incomprehension.

“Just let me do all the talking after halftime. I think I can reach our Target. We’ve got to become real to her.”

Suddenly the curtain of void seemed to puff into smoke in front of them and they once again faced three glorious Unicorns standing behind podiums. The center Unicorn looked thoughtful, though the right and left Unicorns looked smug.

“They probably spent the break deciding what kind of celebratory cupcake to have once they win,” growled Pix.

“Shhh. I do the talking,” said Rex. “All of it.”

“BEGIN!” said the disembodied voice of the Powers That Be.

The window to the little girl opened once more and the light appeared over the Unicorn’s side.

“Chupacabaras are pathetic,” said the Unicorn on the right. “Just look at that weird toy.”

“POINT!” said the Powers. Pix and Mynx groaned.

The light turned on over Rex’s team. He swallowed.

“Chupacabaras are kind of pathetic,” Rex agreed. His teammates stared at him, disbelieving. “I mean, just look at the big, sad eyes on that toy. Poor puppy.”

“POINT!” said the Powers. The Unicorn on the right whinnied a laugh.

“What are you doing?” Hissed Pix.

“Shhh,” said Rex.

He noticed the Unicorn in the center give him a hard, determined look.  Rex looked into her deep, wise eyes. The Unicorn Team Captain seemed to understand that Rex’s team was not out yet.

“There are so many unicorn toys for you to choose from,” she started.  “Flying ones, black ones, shining ones, and soft ones. You can be yourself with any of these. They protect and defend. They run free. You can choose whatever unicorn you wish to help you tell all the stories in your head. There is so much you can be with a Unicorn.”

“POINT!”

Rex swallowed hard. The Team Captain, at least truly understood what her kind meant to children. Stories, legend. The power to be the protagonist in whatever tale unfolded. This was strongly and beautifully persuasive.

“Well, but look at the unicorn toys,” said Rex. “Sure there are a lot of them. But they look kind of…bad. The Chupacabara is somehow cute. It looks like it needs love.”

The Unicorns on the right and left whinnied laughs. But Rex smiled. He knew he’d won this one.

“POINT!” said the Powers.

The Unicorn on the left looked frustrated.

“Look,” she said, “any little girl should be pleased with a unicorn. We are unicorns and you are a little girl. We just go together. You’re so lucky you get to choose one of us.”

The Team Captain of the Unicorns snorted in annoyance at her teammate.

“What?” said the Unicorn on the left. “It’s true. We’re Unicorns. This should be over already.”

“NO POINT!” said the Powers.

“What?!” cried the Unicorn on the left.

Rex smiled. Never pander to children. They see right through you.

“It’s true,” Rex said. “The Unicorns are amazing and they don’t need you. They have every other child on the planet. We need you. We will always need you. We will never take for granted the games you play with us or the time you spend imagining. We will not distain any storyline you imagine. All of them, from monster wars to tea parties we will happily pretend with you again and again. Because you are our girl, and we are your creatures, and we delight in your mind.”

The room was silent for a moment. Rex hoped he’d done it. Made the girl feel recognized as the secretly amazing, magical creature she was. It was what the Unicorns of old did for young maidens. This recognition was a powerfully intoxicating invitation for imaginations. Why couldn’t it work for Chupacabaras too?

“POINT!” said the Powers.

But points didn’t matter; only the Decision mattered. Six pairs of eyes wheeled toward the window to the human world to watch the girl. Without hesitation, two little hands reached toward the plump ugly/cute stuffed Chupacabara and pulled it from its shelf into her arms.

The Unicorns lowered their heads ever so slightly. Graceful, even in defeat. Rex’s own teammates whooped, howled, and carried on like they’d never seen victory before. Well they hadn’t… Rex thought.

Then it hit. The love. The warm sunshine of human attention rushed through Rex’s heart. The Chupacabaras everywhere would be feeling it now, and knowing their team had won. Rex felt tears spring to his eyes. He looked at his teammates and saw real happy smiles on their muzzles for the first time. No pessimistic sarcasm, and no inappropriate bloodlust. Only joy.

The center Unicorn stepped up to him. He hadn’t even seen her leave her podium.

“It was a well met bout today, young Chupacabara.” She dipped her horn to him.

“Err…Thank you.”

“We lost her today because we forgot that little girls make us who we are. We are nothing without them and we do well to remember that. You understand, my friend. It is they and not we who are truly magical.”

Rex watched the Unicorn walk back to her podium and vanish with her teammates in a shimmer like a desert mirage.

“Now what?” Said Pix.

“We’ll become real!” shouted Mynx. “Really real! Then we feast on real goat blood!!!”

“That’s not quite how it works, Mynx,” Rex said. He was certain that many other Chupacabaras would be thinking along the same lines as Mynx. He grimaced. Oh well. It’s fine to let them dream.

As the little girl cuddled her new toy Chupacabara that night in bed, Chupacabaras the whole world over fell asleep dreaming of goat blood and feeling the loving strokes and warm firmness of the girl’s arms. They would all be in her dreams that night. Probably not eating livestock like they wanted. Dressed in pink and getting their long claws painted, perhaps. But bathed in the dazzling and joyous light of the girl’s imagination all the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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