by Tessa Niznik
10th grade, Morristown High School
Teacher: Jennifer Furphey
First-place prize: $300
This morning, the sun shone bright. Uncomfortably, blindingly bright. It was as if the sun had been pushed much closer to the earth, baking each living creature below. She stood there head to the ground, passing identical patches of dirt and grass, bleached tan from the heat. She liked to wander, it was peaceful. She felt like part of the land, like any other blade of grass, like any stone or speck of dirt.
Lifting her head, she squinted, fuzzy waves of heat curling around the horizon. Approaching swiftly came another harried group, much like the one she was a part of. She lumbered forward, focusing her small eyes to just make out the shape of the one she was looking for. He approached gracefully, darting with a theatrical smile before settling comfortably on her shoulder.
“You’re two days late,” she remarked, her brows settling back into their usual annoyed expression.
Her friend rolled his eyes, shuffling. “It’s not my fault that there was a thunderstorm. And besides, can’t I take a little vacation once in a while?”
“Not when the fleas are stronger than ever.” She flicked her tail to prove her point. He rolled his eyes again, something he did quite a lot.
“Again, not my fault.” He reluctantly bent over and sampled a bug. “It shouldn’t be this warm around this time of year.” What he said was true. This was the few months of the year when rain should have trickled from the sky nearly every day. But they had gone a week without the slightest drizzle. The bugs, unbothered by the anomaly, were fierce as they were in the typically hotter months.
She snorted and stooped her shoulders again, finding a blade of grass with the merest bit of green and chewing it loudly. A gust of wind passed through, relieving both of the dry conditions, albeit for a few moments.
“So where did you go this time?” she asked as she shuffled forward with the rest of the group, moving as slow as an injured turtle.
A smile came to her friend’s face, stretching across his brilliant yellow beak. “Oh, it was wonderful. We went to a lovely jungle with a large pond. There were even trees, taller than I care to fly, with more sturdy perches than a big lug like you.”
“Can’t I ask a simple question without you pestering me?” She flicked her tail again, this time out of annoyance.
“Oh, I’m just messing. A tree certainly doesn’t give me free food.” He laughed, a quick, flighty noise. The grass rustled once more, even more forcefully. The two stood in silence.
“Sometimes I wish I could travel,” she said suddenly, looking up into the cloudless sky. He hopped to the shadow that her horn cast between her shoulder blades, inspecting the area for bugs. “Why? You have responsibilities in the herd.”
“I guess so,” she said, shrugging, jostling her friend from his perch. “I have to look out for humans from time to time, and watch the younger ones. But sometimes, I just wish I had something more important to do, or, dare I say, fun. But, no, it’s just the same each day. Same dried-up grass and dust and sky and sun.”
“But you’re constantly moving.”
“It all looks the same. You must notice. I can walk a hundred miles out here and feel like I’ve gone nowhere.”
He suddenly flitted to her face, settling on the smaller horn in between her eyes. “Look, I think you just need to relax. You’re safe and comfortable, so why bother?”
“Easy for you to say. All you do is pick the bugs off my back and then fly away to some distant, colorful place to spend your nights.”
He looked at her in the eyes again, sighing. “The world isn’t just pretty. I’ve seen many a creature, large and small, shot by humans, or even humans destroying each other. Even had a few close calls myself.”
She snorted. “So why even leave the grasslands?”
He looked suddenly serious, like a very wise man who had seen every place in the world. “Because I gotta see something. I have wings, so I use them. It’s not really my choice.”
She picked at the ground, continuing her search for fresh grass. “But I only have my big, lumpy feet. How do I use that?”
He grinned. “I guess that’s for you to figure out.” He flitted away, moving to her back. She let out a groan of annoyance, disturbing the peaceful grazers around her.
“You’re the most annoying bird I’ve ever met.”
“And you’re the unhappiest rhino.”
She stomped faster with the group, her steps fueled by both annoyance and consideration. “You know, maybe I should just get rid of you. I could do that, mind you. One stomp, and you’re—”
All of a sudden, a lazy fly landed on her nose. She sniffed, clearly disturbed. Without a beat, her companion darted gracefully, plucking the insect and gobbling it happily. “And that is why you need me,” he retorted, prancing around. She smiled almost gratefully as the other birds in his flock began to depart, their wings casting ever-moving shadows across the plain.
Her eyes lifted from their usual expression. “I’ll see you around, featherbag.” He turned in preparation, but returned the look that only a friend could give. “And I’ll catch you sometime, old grump.”
With that, he was gone, becoming a dark speck against the gnarled, yet clearly defined horizon.
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