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It was a clear, cold night when the animal jumped in front of Sloane’s car.
There were so many ways that her mind tried to grasp the appearance of it – a sheet, a wedding dress, a snowstorm – and the fact that she couldn’t place the shape may have been why she didn’t let her foot off the accelerator. But when it stopped and turned on such delicate legs at her, bottomless mountain pond eyes catching hers with a passive apathy and not hinting even at curiosity in the last moment, she wasn’t able to hit the brakes until she was upon it.
The car struck it with a sound like it had hit a cloud.
As Sloane sat in the driver’s seat of her truck, breaths coming shallowly in small, quivering puffs, she almost didn’t get out of the car. The lack of a crash or even a sound thud made her wonder if she had scared herself awake from a dream, some midnight illusion. Not that she had been asleep, of course, but so late at night it’s easy for the mind to wander and then to startle oneself back to paying attention. But Emory was barking furiously, nose shivering like it might jump off his snout, and she figured better to take a second and look than risk a ticket for leaving an animal in the road.
She slipped Emory’s leash on, knowing that if she left the beagle in the car he might get excited and lock her out or tear the seat up in his excitement. There was no other traffic on the back road leading into the city, and she could make out the outline of it jutting from the river like an electric castle. She hadn’t wanted to drive out to Mary’s house so late, but she insisted that they have dinner before signing the divorce papers. She wanted so much for them to stay…comfortable.
They got to talking over dessert. Mary wanted to know all about some freak show in town, some traveling carnival or something. She wanted to know if she wanted to see it with her.
Maybe if she hadn’t had such a large glass of red wine, Sloane thought she might not have laughed so hard she spit bloody tears on her tablecloth. “You want to set up a date after I sign the death certificate to our marriage? I don’t know if you’re being a cold bitch or if you’re just stupid.”
Mary cried like she always did – huge, like an actress, flailing and sobbing. Sloane put her arms around her and tried to play along. She told her again that she forgave her for sleeping with her friend from the finance department, and she pretended to be sorry for what she said. They didn’t say much after that, and Emory chose the lull in excitement to scratch at the door.
“You love that dog more than you ever loved me.” Sloane looked back at her and there must have been some pain there because Mary’s eyes showed a half-moon of triumph. Sloane found herself smiling when she agreed and stomped out on the porch.
Now here she was, bent over this…thing she had hit. She cussed at the cold night. That glass of wine really was too big.
The heat from the body and the car made the whole world smoke. She put her hand down on the tiny white flank, surprised that she almost dwarfed it, and shuddered at the soft whistle of a keen the thing made, like the fading memory of a song. Emory snuffed its ear, and Sloane was about to bat him away when his hand froze above the creature’s single, shining horn.
Sloane hadn’t been to church in years, but she found she was crossing herself.
As she hauled the thing into her truck bed, she realized there was no blood, not marking the road and not soaking into the raggedy blanket she used to cover it. It was no heavier than a child, and the smell on her hands reminded her of linens and grandmothers and lilacs. Emory rolled on his side next to it, one paw over the animal’s back, his muzzle resting near the slender neck. The look in the dog’s eyes told him that he wouldn’t be moved, so Sloane got back into the truck alone.
Every movement on the road made Sloane jump a little after that. Each driver who locked their sight with hers made her look away with a guilty paranoia, like they suspected the holy cargo she was carrying. Twice they stopped when she had taken a curve a little too quick, and twice she moved to the back and lifted an inch of that blanket. And twice she touched that horn with the tip of one finger, to remind her that she wasn’t dreaming.
If she stayed too long, Emory would growl. The sound was so foreign she figured it better than to test him, so she would be the one with her tail between her legs, slinking back to the ignition.
When Sloane got to her apartment building, she saw someone standing out front. It was Roger, her band’s bass player, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He threw it on the sidewalk as she got out. “Dude, where the fuck have you been? We were supposed to practice an hour ago.”
“Look, man, you knew I was going out to Mary’s tonight. Get out of my face.” She stood between him and back of the truck, uncertain how close she should let him get to the…whatever it was in the back.
His expression softened just slightly under his blonde bangs, and he raised a hand to push the mess of hair out of his face, trying to cool down. Sloane took the moment to glance at her watch. She had actually stood him up for closer to two hours, but what difference did it make? “I thought you all were just going to sign the papers and be done with it. It’s not like you can stand being around her.”
“She wanted to have dinner. It’s not like we have any gigs we’re practicing for, anyway.” Guilt hit her almost as soon as the words came out. “Sorry. It’s just been a rough night, okay?”
Roger held onto his case a little tighter. “At least some of us are making a fucking effort instead of locking ourselves away, crying our little dyke tears for some bitch who-”
The thunderstorm that had been growing in her gut exploded, then, and Sloane took a swing at him. Her fist hit his cheek, and the bass hit the sidewalk with a discordant crack. He came back at her with a right cross that grazed her temple, and then as she was reeling, he tackled her hard. The wind knocked out of her, she wheezed as he picked her up by the lapels of her flannel and slammed her into the ground. “What’s your problem, man? I wait here for you, and you come back and give me shit.”
At first, all she could see was white, and then the night sky came back into focus.
“I said I was sorry,” she finally said, sense accompanying the oxygen in her lungs. “Get off me, you dick.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Looking up into his face, past his leather jacket and torn up jeans, Sloane realized that this was the closest to a friendship she would probably ever get. “No. Thanks.”
He arched his back and looked at her truck. In her clearing senses, Sloane picked up the sound of Emory yodeling. The other parts of the night came back hard, like another punch. “Dude, your dog is freaking out,” Roger said as he stood up, pulling Sloane up with him.
“Yeah, about that…” She prayed that she wasn’t making yet another mistake. “I need your help with something.”
About twenty minutes later, Sloane and Roger stood over the tub in her studio apartment. The unicorn – it was Roger who said it first, practically screamed it, in fact – fit into it perfectly, its thin legs tucking up under itself like a deer. Fur the color of starlight seemed sickly under the flickering bare bulb that hung near the mirror.
Emory sat next to the tub, resting his head on the toilet seat lid. Now and then, his tail would thump against the grimy linoleum, and he would look up at Sloane, waiting for her to move it again.
“What are you going to do with it, dude?”
Sloane let go a low whistle. “I have no clue. I mean, I hit it with my car, it might not even last long.”
Roger turned his head, squinting. “He…She…uh…it looks okay, you know. For something so small that you slammed into with that hunk of junk.”
“Yeah, there’s no blood or anything, but look.” She pointed down at its back legs. There were bulges just under the snowy surface. “Emory busted his leg a few years back going down the stairs, and it looked a lot like that.”
“You could call a vet.”
“And tell them what, dumb ass? ‘Yeah, so I hit a unicorn with my car, could you come out and take a look at it’?”
Roger shoved her hard. “Look, man, it was just an idea. I don’t know what to do with it, okay?”
Sloane pressed her hand against her face. It felt like she had been sweating all night. “I know, I know. Let’s just go to practice. There’s nothing I can do with it tonight either way, right? Come on. Emory, you too.”
The dog – who would usually follow along with Sloane wherever she went, whether she actually called him by name or not – didn’t even stir from his spot on the floor.
“Emory,” she said, more firmly than she had had to in a long time. “Come.”
He whined and lay down.
Sloane picked her guitar up and headed for the door. “Fine. Forget it.”
They met with the other guys and had practice, and Sloane wasn’t sure if maybe it was just because of how bad the rest of the night had been but…they sounded pretty good. Better than they had in a long time, in fact. Even Jonas, who usually showed up a little high and a lot crappy, playing the drums like he was three with a spoon and some pans. “Good job tonight,” she said to him as they cleaned up. “I guess things are going well with that chick who moved in.”
“Mika. Thanks. Yeah, I don’t know, I just felt really ‘in it’ tonight, you know?”
Roger cut in as he wrapped an electric chord between his hand and elbow. “Well, keep feeling ‘in it’ like that, and we might actually get back to the Garage.”
The Garage was a small club and bar in the southside. They had been getting consistent gigs a year before but had been cut out after the management changed. “We just want a newer sound,” the new owner said over the phone. “Kids want to hear electronics and keyboards these days, not punk.”
Roger had evidently gone into a screaming tirade about differences in musical genres for so long and with so much cursing that the man on the other end had to eventually hang up. Sloane didn’t really blame him; she had made the same mistake once, getting him started, and she had to hang up, too.
They went out for drinks after that, and she was approached by a mousy girl in a floral-print sundress. She had curly, short hair the color of honey, and her voice was sweet when she said that her name was Hazel. But it wasn’t just her cute face that made Sloane stare longer than she should have. Two long, bony protrusions came out of her back. They moved with her, like wings…or at least like what wings might look like, if they were plucked. Bleached.
“Do you want to touch them?”
Sloane nodded, her mouth dry. They felt smooth and cool, satin and ivory and magic. Magical. “Wow.”
“Do you want to come back to my place?” Hazel asked. “You look like you’ve had a rough night. We could have a couple of drinks.”
She was startled by how much like Mary she looked when she said that, and she hated saying, “No, sorry, Not tonight. I’m…uh…I’m coming out of something really rough right now.”
Sloane waited for her to roll her eyes and walk away or even pout, but instead Hazel took her hand in her tiny, pale one and wrote her number down on Sloane’s palm. “For when things are a bit more smooth. Okay?”
When she got home, a bit too warm and a bit too top-heavy, she crashed without looking in the bathroom again. Her bed – a mattress on the floor covered in laundry of all matter of sizes, shapes and varying degrees of cleanliness – was a surprisingly comfortable cloud, and it was the best sleep she had in months.
The next afternoon, when her eyes opened, she didn’t move her head or look to the window. She expected the unhappy afterbirth from a night of drinking. Her phone buzzed from the cluttered coffee table Roger had constructed for her out of several pieces of wood and two cinder blocks. Lying on her back, it went to voicemail.
When Sloane finally ventured to sit up, it was unencumbered by hangover or headache. She stretched, ready for it to strike like a viper awoken, but it never did. She wandered over to the corner where she had her tiny fridge and hotplate, pulling out a carton of eggs and orange juice. Where had those come from? She hadn’t gone grocery shopping since before Mary moved out, sustaining herself entirely on the Chinese take-out place on 52nd and an occasional trip to the gas station.
Jonas had stayed over after practice last week. Maybe he left them…
After a quick lunch, she poured some dog food into a bowl and took it into the bathroom. Emory hadn’t moved, his ears still resting on the floor, glassy black eyes looking up at her. She glanced into the tub, and the unicorn was still there. She wasn’t certain, but she thought that it looked a bit less luminescent, like dirty, street-side snow instead of the flawless white of the night before. And had it fit into the tub that well, last night?
Knock, knock, knock.
Sloane put down the fender she was tuning and wandered to the door. There was no face on the other side of the door, just a mess of hair. She only knew one other person who was that short, and for a second, she didn’t move, didn’t touch the door knob. Finally, she twisted it, leaving the chain latched.
“What do you want?”
The sliver of Mary on the other side of the paint-chipped, heavy old door smiled, tight-lipped. “I was in the city and thought I’d stop by. I left a message on your phone.”
Right, the voicemail. She hadn’t checked it yet. “Right. So you stopped by. Great. Can I do something for you?”
The thin, pressed lips seemed to cave in further, and Sloane could see the hint of her teeth, chewing. “You left last night without…you know.”
Her ex-wife lifted an envelope. “Signing the papers.”
After a second, Sloane closed the door to let the chain loose, opening it again to usher Mary in without a word. “Wow,” Mary said, sitting on the old couch, another curbside-find that Roger had brought by a year ago. “It looks good in here, Sloane. Really.”
“Thanks.” She almost told her that she had just cleaned it, had finished finding out what clothes were clean and which were dirty five minutes before she knocked. She wanted to gloat about how she had swept and taken a few rags to the windows. But if she said all that, she might have ended up wanting to tell her about the unicorn in the bathroom, so she didn’t say anything else.
“Sloane…I wasn’t fair to you last night. I invited you out there, and then I was a…I was terrible to you. I’m sorry.”
Sloane picked at a frayed hole in her jeans. “Yeah, I was nasty, too. It’s okay.” After a too-long pause, she reached out towards the envelope, but Mary didn’t let go.
When her lips parted, she barely whispered, “I thought…”
Sloane didn’t let go, but she didn’t pull any harder either. “What?”
“Could we try again?”
Mary spoke louder, but her voice was untouched by anger, free of any malice or manipulation. “This…all of it…it was my idea and I think I changed my mind and I can’t imagine spending my life without you. I want us to do this again. We don’t have to live together yet. I just don’t want to nail the coffin shut, you know?”
Now it was Sloane’s turn to feel tense, to feel her face pulling in protectively. She got ready for her to laugh and say she was kidding, to tell her to sign the papers so she could go out on a date. “What about what’s-her-name. At work. Who you…”
“No, baby. No. She was a temp. She’s gone. I don’t even have her phone number.”
“What if you did?”
“I don’t want to be with her. I want you.” Mary pulled at the envelope so she could cover Sloane’s hand with hers. The soft skin moved over the calluses from night after night of frets and playing away the pain. “You’re my wife.”
Sloane let go of the papers but didn’t pull away. And when they kissed on the couch, a soft, hesitant reconciliation, she didn’t pull back then, either.
After Mary left, Sloane finally checked her messages.
The other was from Roger. They didn’t have a gig.
They had two.
“Hey, man, there’s some guy outside looking for you.”
Sloane looked up from the speaker she was trying to get working. Jonas was twirling his drumsticks in one hand, and she recognized the nervous tick. “Yeah? What does he want?”
“I don’t know, but he said he has to talk to you.”
“You know we’re going back on in five. Can it wait?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. He just said he has to talk to you, okay?”
Sloane rolled her eyes and got up. When she headed outside, she could tell immediately who Jonas had been talking to. He had a shock of red hair and a face like a car accident. His muscles bulged under the dirty wife-beater, and she tried on a smile. He refused to afford her the same courtesy. “Sloane.” His voice was dirty, sharp, a hunk of dangerous metal.
“Yeah. A fan of the band? Can I give you an autograph or something?” She reached out her hand, a peace offering. When he took it, he squeezed so hard she thought it might break. She tried to pull out of his hold but to no avail.
“Have something of mine,” he growled. The way there wasn’t any question in what he said made her feel sick. She thought of the bathroom, the thing in the tub. “Want it back.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She finally reached out and shoved his chest with her hand. “Back off.”
The man let go of her but only took a half-step back. Within a second, he stepped forward until she had her back to the brick wall of the club, two freckled hands on her shoulders. “Could be easy,” he growled. Then, he ground his knuckles against her bones in such a way that she cried out. She kneed him in the groin, waited for him to double over, but nothing happened. “Could be hard.”
For a second, just as she thought the pain was going to be too much, something in her asked why she was doing this. Why she didn’t just tell him that, yes, she had what he was looking for, that he could have it back. And just as quickly, her subconscious knew why: it was the reason Mary had shown up, that the band was booked solid for the next month, that things were looking good for the first time in recent memory.
Suddenly, Sloane caught the sight of a bottle coming down in a fast, nasty arch. It broke against the guy’s face, blood and beer pouring from his skull. He let her go, and another set of hands pulled her back. Roger’s rage was deafening, burning white in his face and in the knuckles that were holding her back. “Fuck off, asshole, before I call the cops.”
Under the red of his hair and the blood, Sloane shook when she realized that he looked barely affected. “Not over,” he said in a frighteningly stable tone as he turned and walked away down the alley, one hand flicking the liquid off his face like it was just sweat.
“What was that all about?”
“He knew.” She took what was supposed to be a steadying breath. It didn’t help. “He knew, Roger. About the unicorn.”
“You should come back to my place.”
“No. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Sloane, come on, man.”
“I said I’m fine. I could have handled it. He just was…” Not being able to find an adequate excuse made her madder, and she yelled, “I don’t need any help. Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for the set?”
Roger’s mood changed, a page flipping suddenly on his face to reveal a wolfish grin. He pulled a card out of his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “Check it out.”
The adrenaline that was easing off became swept up in the rush of shocked delight. Eggshell white and professional printing gave the name, address and phone number of Docile Tones Music Group.
A week later, the unicorn had, in fact, gotten smaller. Now, it was only the size of a large dog. Emory still wasn’t eating. “He’s healthy,” the vet had told her after several tests. “He’s young, there’s no physical reason he isn’t eating. Have you tried changing his food?”
When they finished recording, Sloane had seen cats bigger than the unicorn. She started force-feeding Emory supplements. “You don’t seem really with it tonight, dude,” Roger told her after they had been working on a song for an hour. She kept missing chords because she was so exhausted from staying up with the dog.
“Sorry.” Then, she muttered, “Not like it matters. We could suck and we’d still be successful.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
When they got back from touring, the unicorn could be held to her like a rabbit. When Sloane started packing up her things, preparing to move out to Mary’s house, she found Emory in her walk-in closet adjacent to the bathroom. He was cold, stiff, on his side.
Just as she was becoming completely undone, there was a knock on the door. She answered it. There was a giant man, dark and silent as death. In the lonely hallway, he cast a long shadow and it grew out from his feet in a way that was almost organic. “You have something of mine,” he said.
She sobbed, unable to hold it back, a terrible explosion in a minefield of grief. “I’m sorry.”
He lifted one hand to his face, rubbing the thin black beard. “I sent two before me to try to get it out of you. One to seduce, the other to coerce. You recognize the worth of a unicorn. I can respect that.”
Sloane wished she could stop crying, and more than that, she wished he would just take the thing and leave. He regarded her like a scientist studying the behavior of an animal. “Knowing what you know now, and all that you’ve gained…would you say it was worth it?”
All she could think of was Emory.
Emory, who was there when Mary told her about the affair.
Emory, who would come up to meet her when she came home from another bad practice.
Emory, who curled up at the foot of her bed, within arm’s reach when she had drunk too much and needed to sleep it off.
What had she done?
“No,” she said. “If I could have him back, I would give it all up.”
“Have you not gotten everything you could want? Fame, fortune, the stuff of kings and the greatest bards and…”
Sloane crossed the room and threw open the door. She gathered the unicorn up in the blanket, now too large and mostly hanging to the floor around the small creature. She held it out to him. “I don’t want any of it. Please, just…bring him back.”
“What makes you think I can do such a thing?” He took the tiny bundle.
Through the tears, she actually laughed a bit. “You send me an angel and a devil and you expect me to believe you can’t heal a dog?”
“Fair. Give me your hand.”
She did. He drew back a bit of the blanket and ran the horn – now barely more than a needle – through her finger. Sloane shrunk back as blood dripped from the wound, tiny drops marking the wooden floor. For how small it was, it felt like her hand was on fire.
The last thing she saw was the little unicorn – a dusty creature with blood on its horn – regard her with an expression that was endless and eternal, and she slipped away.
“What’s your problem, man? I wait here for you, and you come back and give me shit.”
At first, all she could see was white, and then the night sky came back into focus.
Roger was on top of her, a gash on his face. She had hit him – she knew it because her fist ached – but…why?
Emory licked her face. Where was she? She had been somewhere else…had he knocked her into the ground that hard? “Sorry,” she said. “I…uh…what were we talking about?”
“Come on, stop dicking around. You’re fine.”
“Then get off already.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t take another swing at me, Sloane. I’m serious.”
She sat up. Starbursts went off in her vision, and there was this feeling in the back of her head, like she was going to say something and had then forgotten. Like a story or a dream was on the tip of her tongue and now it was gone.
“So are we going to practice or what?”
Sloane blinked and scratched Emory behind the ears. He seemed really excited, but she wasn’t sure why. “What?”
“Practice,” he said, drawing out the word. “You know, you play guitar and I play bass and Jonas pretends to play the drums.”
“Right, sorry. Just a second, I have to get something out of the back.”
She walked over behind the truck. She couldn’t actually think of what she was expecting to be there, because the only thing was an old blanket. It looked like it had been thrown back there. Not wanting to seem like she was losing it, she picked it up and folded it up. Emory whined, and she could swear there was a smell there, something more than the metallic, oily grime scent of the truck.
Something soft, sweet, and then short-lived.