The winter of their sophomore year of college is colder than any in recent memory. The first snow falls in late September, and by November a hush has settled over the mountains and the lake, waterfalls frozen and plants reduced to skeletal branches against the sky.
Dennys cloisters himself in the apartment that he shares with Sandy, snuggling into blankets and scarves. Through October, Sandy remains by his side, sharing heat beneath quilts as they study and bringing chocolate in steaming mugs to warm stiff hands. As the length of days wanes in November, though, Sandy becomes increasingly scarce and Dennys huddles alone. On some days, he sees Sandy only at night, as Sandy edges open the door and undresses quickly so he won't wake Dennys if he's sleeping. Dennys sleeps less, waiting, and dreams often of desert heat, and unicorns, and burnished hair.
Sandy leaves early in the mornings, long before the sun rises, and Dennys learns of his absent twin in minutiae: a cereal bowl that he leaves full of rainbow-stained milk, a pair of muddy kneepads in the laundry basket, the growing pile of books on string theory and the theoretical mechanics of relativity.
Dennys feels increasingly that they are spinning apart, like planets far-flung in an expanding universe. He flips through Sandy's physics books at night and reads about uncertainty: the universe is not a closed system; mathematics will never be complete. He finds parallels in his philosophy texts: Hume's explication that is cannot be made ought, Stalnaker's theory of the fundamental incompleteness of language, Kant's induction of morality. It is not only philosophy that is uncertain, and not only physics that derives worlds from basic premises of mathematics. The similarities make him feel closer to Sandy, even if they rarely speak; milk bowls and incompleteness and memories of burning sand all held still and dear, like fish in the frozen streams that he crosses each morning on the way to class.
"It's okay. It's only Sandy." Dennys strokes a hand over the mane of the unicorn that rests beneath the blanket with him, only its head and glistening horn visible outside the downy cover. The unicorn radiates serene heat, as if the desert had settled into its bones somehow. Dennys enjoys its presence when Sandy isn't around for warmth. The unicorn lowers its head again, settling its chin with a comfortable huff on Dennys's thigh.
"Unicorns again?" Sandy asks, shaking the caked snow out of his scarf and hanging it on one of the hooks that decorate their closet door, between the peg for hockey skates and the peg that holds Dennys's blue towel.
"Yes. He was here when I woke up from my nap." The light from the unicorn's horn sifts across their dingy carpet. It watches as Sandy peels out of layers -- jacket, hoodie, over-shirt, long sleeved t-shirt. The unicorn tilts its head like a large queer-shaped dog, and in the modern world it's only a little larger than the size of one, a large Great Dane, perhaps, or a small pony. Dennys tends to treat it like a dog when it appears, allowing it free run of the apartment and encouraging it to curl up on the bed while he works on papers.
It's happened more often of late. The trouble with unicorns, Sandy says, is that once you believe in them, it's impossible to not-believe again. Even if your conscious mind could manage to forget, you see them in dreams and when you awaken there they are, flickering peacefully in front of you, called by memories while you slept. It happens often enough that Dennys has become fond of his dream-summoned unicorns, and so they stay after he wakes, incongruous among the piles of dirty clothes and textbooks. They flicker out when he sets off to class, too ephemeral to survive the press of students or too smart to venture into the wind in the dead of winter.
"You want a sandwich?" calls Sandy from the kitchen, and the unicorn rises to stand in the doorway and watch as he rifles through the cabinets for bread and mustard.
"No thanks. I ate while you were gone."
"Marina says hi, by the way." Marina is a physics TA, tall and slim in the boyish way of former ballerinas, with dark eyes, brown hair, and an accent that confirms her Slavic cheekbones. She eats with her fork in her left hand, and laughs too loudly at Sandy's jokes.
Dennys grunts in response and Sandy wanders back into the bedroom, holding his sandwich in a paper towel and trailed by the hollow clop-clop of the unicorn against scarred wood floors. Outside the window, ice-covered branches creak beneath the burden of their own weight. The apartment is heated, but the cold settles insidious into cracks and nestles into joints until even perfectly toasty rooms seem hushed and deadened. The unicorn's horn glints off the darkened window and casts shadows over the snow into the night outside.
Sandy settles in a desk chair and props his feet on the desk, contented. His ears are bright red when Dennys glances up to look; he probably left his hat at Marina's. Dennys glances back down at the paper he's writing - Ships Which Are Not: The Impermanence of Identity Through Time - and ignores Sandy's stare. The unicorn hops carefully onto the bed, its balance on the mattress unsteady, and curls around him in a warm and shining semi-circle.
The wind howls around the corner of their house. On the roof, a pile of snow succumbs to the wind and to gravity and slides down the shingles with a rough scrape, landing with a muted whumph on the ground below. Dennys looks up again and rolls his eyes at Sandy's continued gaze. "What?"
"Nothing." Sandy has finished the sandwich. "You're mad at me."
"I'm not mad at you."
"You're doing a poor job of acting like it."
"I'm not mad at you."
"Whatever. I'm going to bed." When he stands, Sandy launches the balled-up paper towel across the room towards the waste bin, and throws his arms into the air when it lands in the bag.
"Okay," says Dennys, and switches on the light above his bunk so he can see his books when Sandy turns out the room's light. The unicorn nuzzles its head a little closer in his lap, and Dennys strokes its coarse mane and watches the snow whirl in flurries outside before looking down to write again.
It isn't as though things have changed between them. They still finish each other's sentences, still can't sleep without the other safe nearby. They know exactly where the other will be in hockey games, and still occasionally fool people as to which twin is which. And yet...
And yet. Sandy spends longer and longer nights with Marina, and Dennys retreats to the libraries, consumed with work. Both of them have excuses: classes are difficult, and both take courses far above their peers' level. It doesn't mean that it makes Dennys comfortable.
"But particles don't work that way," Marina protests. Sandy has a mouthful of spaghetti at the time, so Dennys answers.
"But what if they could? As far as we know quanta aren't limited in time. So if reliable observers could be produced at either end of a large time gap, what's to say that the particles couldn't be re-observed into being, even if they'd disappeared over the interval because there was no one there to observe them? To realize them, as it were?" Sandy nods along as he chews.
"Dennys, you have not studied physics." Marina waves her fork dismissively. "These are not the ways that particles operate. They are not merely called into being on a whim. Your brother understands." Dennys thinks of unicorns, and wonders what Marina would think if he called one now. If she could touch it.
Sandy looks up and shoots Dennys a pleading look. I know what you're thinking, but drop it, please? Dennys gives an exasperated huff.
"Such flights of imagination!" Marina continues. "It is obvious why you are the philosopher of the family."
Dennys narrows his eyes. "Philosophers were talking about relativity long before physicists accepted the concept," he says, to be spiteful. Sandy gives him another meaningful look, and Dennys bends his head over his plate while his twin leads the conversation to calmer waters.
That night, Dennys traces figures with one finger onto the bottom of the top bunk, where Sandy lies above him in the dark. "She couldn't believe in unicorns," he says, certain that Sandy will know what he means.
"Would we believe if we hadn't seen them?"
"We were never skeptical beyond reason. We were always open to the possibility of being proven wrong. It's why we could call them when we needed them." Dennys settles more deeply beneath the layer of quilts on top of him, wiggling his toes as he waits for the blankets to warm to his body heat. The cold still seeps through the quilts.
"It's a lot easier to believe once you've seen something." Sandy's voice floats out into the room from above.
"Do you believe in El?"
"That's not fair. We saw the results of his work, and we saw the angels." Sandy sounds like he's turning over above Dennys's head. A hand dangles over the side of the top bunk.
"There are experiments that show quanta might work like unicorns. We just can't see the particles themselves."
"Quanta are energy, not particles." The hand clenches, then releases and drifts slack.
"You know what I mean."
A sigh from above. "Dennys, she's not us. And she's not Yalith." Outside, the icicles in front of the window tinkle and crack as the wind buffets against them.
Dennys is quick to protest. "I don't expect her to be."
"Then stop being prickly every time she comes over, and give her a chance." The hand disappears again, withdrawn closer to Sandy's body.
Dennys turns to stare outside. The snow reflects the moon and the streetlights, and the ground seems unnaturally bright. The air shimmers in front of him, but no unicorn appears.
"Dennys knows better," Sophia laughs, leaning into him and wrapping her arm through his. Her body feels warm against his side, and Dennys isn't sure whether to pull away.
"Do not enlist Dennys to your cause, for you are epically and tragically wrong." Brian sits across the table from them and raises one dark eyebrow to make his point, stabbing ruthlessly at the quesadilla on his plate.
"I'm not wrong, am I Dennys?" Sophia is still leaning against him.
"I'm Switzerland, leave me out of it," says Denny, laughing, and rises from his seat. "I'm going to get more milk, I'll be right back. Anybody want me to bring them something?" but they've already gone on without him, lost in an argument over whether Marlowe is a plausible alternative to Shakespeare for the later sonnets. Brian is a double-major in English and economics, pale skinned and British. He grew up at Eton, and moved across the pond for grad school. Sophia is a theatre major and a dancer, willowy in the same way as Marina, though Dennys thinks Sophia's laughing ruddy face wears it better.
By the time he returns to the table, milk in hand, the conversation has moved from Shakespeare to religion, which Sophia once told him in all seriousness were the same thing.
"-- parents want me to come home for Christmas holidays, but I'm putting it off as long as I can," Sophia is saying. "My dad's a pastor, so Christmas is always a nightmare of stuff to do at the church. Socials every night, that sort of thing. I'd rather stay here until just a few days before."
"My family always gets together the week before," says Brian, talking with his mouth full. "It's pretty low-key, though. We read the Christmas story on Christmas day and do gifts the night before."
"Do you believe in it?" Dennys asks, impulsive, and regrets as soon as the words escape him. "The Christmas story, I mean."
Sophia looks at him strangely. "No. I mean, Dad's a pastor and everything so maybe he believes it, but I always thought it was like a fairy tale. I mean, it's a nice story but I can't imagine it happening."
Brian nods. "Physics kind of knocked the religion out of me. You get tired of all the science we've got contradicting it after a while. Easier not to count on it too much. I'm like Sophie, I've always thought they were fairy tales."
"Like unicorns," says Dennys, and Sophia tilts her head at him in curiosity at the bitterness of his tone.
"I suppose," she says.
"Like the tooth fairy," says Brian, and Dennys laughs.
"The tooth fairy. You know, Sandy was scandalized when we caught Mother slipping quarters under my pillow. Just horrified." Brian snickers, and Sophia grins and reaches for her apple cobbler.
"When did you find out there's no Santa?"
"I kept Sandy up all night when we were eight. Funny, that one didn't faze us. I guess the tooth fairy took our innocence, after that it was all downhill."
"My mum told me when I was seven." Brian licks the back of his fork and places it on his plate. "I think I was more worried about getting presents than I was about who was bringing them."
"I always wanted to be an elf," says Sophia. "I dressed as one for Halloween when I was really little."
Dennys scratches the side of his nose and lets the conversation drift. Later, as he trudges back to the apartment through the snow, Dennys adjusts his bag over his shoulder and pulls his scarf further up over his mouth, wondering if Sandy will be home when he returns. He wonders if Sandy believes in the Christmas story. When he thinks about it, he wonders if he himself does. Even after living with Noah it's difficult for him to believe that an ocean once parted for Moses, or that El created the world in seven days.
Their street is a great steep hill and walking down it on the icy path is treacherous even in snow boots. The wind up the open roadway is what Charles Wallace calls a lazy wind: too lazy to go around you, it razors right through you instead. Dennys's eyes water with the cold and with the tiny stinging particles of snow carried on the wind, biting into his cheeks like needles where they aren't covered by the scarf. Dennys bites his lip and blinks to keep his eyes from freezing too much. He isn't really watching where he's going, still thinking. He believes in angels shaped like scarab beetles and in unicorns, but to believe in everything the Bible entails, all the trappings of centuries of churches, to believe in the cathedrals and the rest; it all seems so much grander than the El he knew for a span of months in the middle of a desert. That El had just been watching out for a little clan barely scraping by between the manticores and the heat. Dennys wonders what happened to the mammoths, whether El saved them or whether they drowned.
All down the street, lights shine steady in windows, and Dennys can see other students going about their lives, cooking and reading and sitting to watch TV. When he thinks about TV, mammoths seem even more unlikely than ever before. The lights' warm reflections on the snow shade the white into pale dull gold, reminding him of sand and Yalith. Too many things remind him of Yalith of late. She disappeared years ago, centuries ago, but the memory of her burnished hair and angel's smile follow him still like a ghost. Sandy reminds him, Marina reminds him, the unicorns remind him. Dennys hikes his scarf up again and bends his head into the stinging wind, walking more quickly to get out of the cold.
That night he crawls into bed before Sandy gets home and is safely ensconced under the blankets, cocooned and warm, when the sudden chill of air announces Sandy's entrance. The unicorn curled up on top of the blankets by his legs looks up eagerly, nodding its head when Sandy steps into the room.
He doesn't turn on the light. Instead, he changes into his pyjamas by the light of the unicorn's horn and crawls into the top bunk, staying quiet. He squirms around and Dennys watches the mattress flex above his head before Sandy finally gets his nest made and settles down for the night.
"Do you believe in the Bible?" he asks into the dark. The bed creaks above him as Sandy startles.
"I thought you were asleep."
"Do I believe in the Bible?" Sandy sounds confused, but Dennys isn't too concerned.
"Yeah." The unicorn's horn reflects eerily off the window and throws uncanny blue-white shadows across the floor, making the room seem like a tiny oasis of safety against the huge darkness and cold on the other side of the glass. Their window looks out over a hillside; none of the other lights on the street are visible, only the skeletons of the ice-wrapped trees, waving their bony limbs towards the sky.
"I guess so. Not like we've got much choice, it was kind of thrust upon us. Once you've seen angels and helped build an ark I guess you kind of have to buy the whole hog."
Dennys digests this for a moment. "Do you think we have faith?"
"What?" Now Sandy sounds impatient.
"Faith. It's supposed to be the evidence of things unseen, right? So do you think we have faith?"
Sandy is quiet for a long time above him, and Dennys worms one hand out from under the covers to stroke the unicorn's mane. It obligingly pushes its head closer to his hand, and sticks its nose out for him to scratch the mole-soft skin there. The unicorns seem to like having their noses scratched; Dennys has yet to summon one that doesn't enjoy it.
"I don't think about it," Sandy says at last, and they both know an evasion when they hear one. But Dennys doesn't call him on it, so they both remain quiet. Dennys pulls his hand back under the covers so that he doesn't fall asleep while touching the unicorn, thrusting his fingers beneath his hip to warm them again.
"You worry about things too much," says Sandy.
The campus paper runs a story on the Kansas school board banning evolution in biology, and Dennys deliberately leaves the edition open on their table when he comes home to fix dinner. Sandy returns earlier than usual, the usual cold draft hailing him, and Dennys looks up eagerly but looks down again when he sees Marina behind his brother, carefully knocking the snow off her boots before she steps inside.
"I'm almost done with the moussaka," he calls from the kitchen, as they hang their mittens on the row of brass hooks near the door.
"Smells good," says Sandy, and Dennys smiles at the salad lettuce he's tearing into a bowl. "Need any help?" and if it had just been Sandy, Dennys would have told him to come slice tomatoes or get the water glasses.
"You guys can sit down, if you want. There's three minutes left on the oven, so everything's pretty much finished." He rummages through the cupboard for glasses and finds only two. The third floats in the sink and will need washing before they can use it. Dennys sighs and picks up the sponge.
"These silly people." He hears Marina's voice near the table. "They don't want their children to learn the facts of the world because it might interfere with their fairy tales. The world in seven days indeed." Fairy tales. He wonders if Marina has ever talked to Brian or Sophia, then rejects the idea. It's coincidence, that's all. Or, and he laughs ruefully at his own preoccupation, divine destiny, if you believe the Bible. He carries the water glasses to the table.
The oven chimes at him and he pulls on two flowered mitts -- refugees from their mother's kitchen -- to remove the hot moussaka dish. When he steps back into the dining room, Sandy is staring at him meaningfully.
"Fairy tales," Sandy echoes, but Dennys can't tell whether he is agreeing with her or being ironic. It's as though Marina carries her own Marina-distortion-field with her, and whenever she's near, Dennys suddenly loses all ability to read Sandy's reactions. He hates it; the loss of reassurance leaves him feeling itchy and at sea.
"Be careful, it's hot." He passes the spatula to Marina as the guest first, and watches as she dips moussaka onto her plate.
"Oh, Dennys, this is wonderful. You're quite the cook." She smiles at him, and Dennys smiles back.
"Thank you. I take it you're not religious then?" He dips moussaka for Sandy, then for himself.
"Oh no," she says, and hums gratefully around another mouthful. Dennys tastes the food, and finds his eggplant tender and melting. She's right, it is good. "Well, not exactly. I don't think the more fantastic stories are true. But my family is Orthodox, so I suppose I am too. My brother is old enough to sing the Ave in Mass this year, I'll hear him when I go home for Christmas."
Sandy steers them away from religion again, sparing a dark look for Dennys. The twins talk about their family's tradition of finding a tree, and her family's tradition of painting a new nesting doll for each Christmas passed together. Dennys finds himself warming to her over brownies for dessert.
When the meal is over, he retreats to his room and after a moment's thought, calls a unicorn. "You've got to be quiet," he whispers to it, and it stares back at him serenely. He's convinced that unicorns can understand him when they choose, although often they ignore whatever he says to them. This one curls up behind him though, and after sniffing at his philosophy text, seems content to munch delicately at the corner of his notebook. Dennys bops it on the nose with a pen whenever it gets too close to his notes, and it withdraws with an affronted blink before edging back toward the paper a few moments later.
Two chapters of Aristotle and one full notebook page sacrificed to the unicorn later, Dennys finds himself in need of a snack, so he heads back to the kitchen for another brownie. Sandy and Marina are sitting on the couch, and for a moment Dennys thinks they're simply bent over the same book. Only when he returns with a glass of milk in one hand and the brownie in the other does he realize they're kissing.
The very idea startles him so greatly that he stops dead and stares. Watching Sandy kiss is new, something altogether outside his experience. They'd gone to their high school prom with dates, but returned home as soon as the dance was over, so as far as he knew, Sandy had never kissed anyone before. It's a little like watching himself kiss; from behind, the fact that they are twins makes for eerie similarity and Dennys finds himself wondering what it feels like to be the one kissing. He knows what it feels like to be the one watching: like stumbling suddenly and bruising his palms, or like standing at the edge of an ocean, the sand piling around his ankles until he's unable to escape and the sunset growing slowly grimmer into dark.
He realizes abruptly that he's being rude, so he creeps back to their room and shuts the door behind himself with as small a click as possible. Sitting back down on the bed, he shuffles the brownie out of the unicorn's reach and then runs a finger across his own lips, thinking. So this is what he imagined so long ago with Yalith, this is the thing he gives up to remain close to the unicorns. His lips feel very sensitive, even under his own touch, and he imagines as concretely as he can what it might be like to push his fingers into a girl's hair and tug her chin up, smell mint toothpaste or maybe chocolate on her breath, and kiss her. The unicorn butts him with its horn, as though chastising him for the fantasy. He pats it on the head.
Philosophy suddenly seems less important, and after realizing that he's read the same paragraph three times and still hasn't finished it, Dennys rips another blank page out of his notebook and passes it to the unicorn to chew on, then rises and replaces both his book and his notebook to a shelf. There isn't much else to do and he's trapped in their room unless he wants to disturb Sandy. Dennys thrusts his hands into his pockets and crosses to the window, looking out. The stars seem very, very far away and silent.
The glass fogs in front of his nose and mouth, and for a moment he practices making the clouded patch smaller and larger by breathing in and out, but then gets bored of the game and turns back to the room. At last he sighs and turns out the light, lying down beside the unicorn to sleep, trying not to hear what's going on in the other room.
With his thoughts wrapped up in Sandy, it never occurs to him that the unicorn might go out while he sleeps.
The smell of decay wakes him, and Dennys opens his eyes to find himself high on a mountaintop, overlooking a devastated land. Below him, rotting green plants and abandoned carcasses litter the landscape, tossed like driftwood across the rocky slopes. The smell is overpowering; Dennys pulls his shirt over his nose, but it doesn't help much. Perhaps this once was desert; the heat isn't helping the decay. The stench of death pervades the air, soaks into his pores until he feels unclean, buzzes through his hair and stings his eyes.
The unicorn stands daintily beside him, braced into the heated breeze. It's nothing like the wind of home; it caresses instead of cutting to bone, but it brings the death-smell more strongly, and Dennys wishes that the air were still. The unicorn huffs out a breath and shakes its mane in agitation, as though agreeing. It seems untouched by the ugliness of the land or by the repulsive smell.
There is no sign of the person who called the unicorn, and indeed perhaps it phased here of its own accord; Dennys does not pretend to know its mind. Still, he has an idea of why they're here. Even before he spots the husk of a ship balanced on a hilltop in the distance, the land feels familiar. There is no reason that it should, it looks nothing like the oasis of the last time he was here, but the impression is unmistakable. The drowned trees and decomposing animals only serve as further confirmation. Floods leave havoc in their wake, and this one was no exception.
The sun is a gleam of blinding gold along the horizon, and Dennys feel instinctively that it is evening. For a moment he considers looking for Noah and his sons, but he quickly abandons the idea in favor of clearing the refuse away from the rocky outcropping on which he stands and settling in for the night. The last thing he needs is to be lost in the desert, and the chances of finding people seem particularly grim in the wake of the receding waters.
"Many waters," he says out loud to the unicorn. It's watching him as he kicks slimy plant matter over the cliff, clearing a space to sit. When he settles to the sand, it lies down beside him and lays its head on his thigh, just as if they were home and huddled beneath a blanket. The desert air is warm enough that the unicorn's heat is almost uncomfortable, but Dennys doesn't push it away. It's the only other living creature for miles.
As the shadows of the mountains grow longer and dark falls, Dennys realizes that he can hear the stars. Although they aren't precisely silent in the modern world, light in the upper atmosphere renders them faint and unintelligible. They're there, and on clear nights he can hear them distorted through the cold when he looks up from his window, but here they seem close and magnified once more.
Tonight they are singing a song that Dennys does not understand. It is a song of loneliness, austere and bleak. We are the stars that stand vigil; we are the stars unseen. The melody reminds him of Yalith's voice, the song she had crafted for the stars.
The unicorn shifts closer and Dennys wraps his hand around its shining horn. He misses her, and in the shivering dark, with the lonely stars above him and the moldering desert at his feet, he can admit it to himself. Years later, he still misses her. When your first love is too perfect for death to touch her, where do you go from there, he wonders. How does he get from the night that Yalith led the stars and the angels in song, from a woman-child who'd captivated the messengers of God beneath the clean desert sky, to the putrefying and lonely darkness around him? The desert would grow again, hope rising in the wake of the waters, but in three thousand years of history there will be no other woman like Yalith.
Around him, the darkened mountain is eerily still. No other living thing stirs the silence; no insects hum, no birds hunt. No trees stir and whisper in the wind. The waters took with them everything that might move or breathe or make sounds, and only the unicorn's snuffled snores and the silvery thrum of the stars ward off the terror of absolute silence. Even in the snow of home there was sound: branches creaking, ice cracking, snow falling in piles. Here, the absence of sound closes in around him like a glove, velvet and dark, and he wonders if this is why the stars sing: floating in such absolute isolation in space, the song is all that sustains him.
You remember her, the stars say.
"Yes." Dennys looks up at the sky. No one else does. Yalith was never part of the story.
It is enough. The stars seem satisfied, but Dennys is not. He remembers her, as does Sandy, but the name of Yalith has not survived history like the name of Noah. Only he and Sandy serve as living memorials, which makes him all the angrier at Marina. Marina will never be Yalith, she will always be profoundly ordinary and she will never speak the language of the stars. She isn't good enough for Sandy, and if Dennys is honest with himself, he's both jealous of her and angry at Sandy for moving on, for letting go of Yalith in that way. And yet...
And yet. One day he wants to find someone he loves, and that person won't be Yalith either. One day he will have to keep something from Sandy, hold someone close and dearer than his twin, find a way to forget or make peace with the part of himself that remembers the whole of the universe - stars, angels, people, galaxies - whirling to the sound of one luminous voice. Someday he will no longer be able to touch the unicorns, and he wants that, he does, but not yet. Not yet.
Flowers from the flood, sing the stars, flowers in time, but Dennys doesn't want to hear. He folds his shirt up to cover his ears as well as his nose, and pushes his face into the unicorn's mane until all he can see is darkness and all he can smell is the cloves-and-green-growth scent of magic.
This time, he wakes up because Sandy is shaking him.
"--so stupid," Sandy is saying, "God, anything could have happened to you."
"I'm fine," says Dennys, rising gingerly to his knees from where the unicorn had blinked back into existence on the floor of their living room, on the rug in front of the couch.
"You might have been dead or trapped, or you might not have gotten back here for years, Dennys how could you be so careless?" Sandy's hands shape his shoulders, his chest, as though Sandy could make him more real or more solid by proving that Dennys is right in front of him. Sandy's knee is casual against the unicorn's flank, and the sight of it fills Dennys with such warmth that even the cold air of the apartment feels desert-hot. "The first time we went back we would have died if not for Japheth, what if you'd appeared in the middle of a battle or something?"
"I'm fine," Dennys repeats, wrapping his own hands around Sandy's wrists and stilling them over his chest, calming his twin. "I went back to after the flood."
"After the --? Christ, what if you'd gone back during the flood, then where would you be?"
"I don't think the unicorn would go back then. There'd be nothing for him to stand on."
Sandy's eyes narrow. "Dennys, I am not joking. I nearly had a heart attack when you weren't in the room. What if you got lost and I never found you again?"
"Sandy, I didn't get hurt, and I'm sorry I was careless."
"It's not enough," Sandy explodes. "You don't get to just be sorry about this! Do you know what it would have been like for me, without you?"
--Yes --, Dennys wants to say, -- yes I've thought about what it would be like to live apart. -- But instead he says, "I don't want that either," voice low and soothing. He's had a while to think about what it might be like to live apart, but Sandy has had it thrust upon him suddenly, and Dennys understands why he's unsettled. Sandy sighs and closes his eyes.
"What was it like?" Sandy asks in a small voice. "After the flood." The What was it like without her lingers in the air, unspoken, and Dennys isn't sure whether that's what Sandy intends or whether he's just projecting his own insecurities for his twin.
"Everything's dead there," he answers, and Sandy can take that as he will. "There's no oasis anymore. I didn't even see people. It smelled awful, all that rot, plants and animals and everything just kind of lying across the ground wherever the water left them. It was sickening." Dennys bites his lip and shrugs. "I could hear the stars, though. They were lonely, I think. They remember Yalith too. And then I fell asleep again and came home."
"Jesus," Sandy whispers, a hard rush of breath that leaves him deflated and weary and old-looking all at once. He leans his forehead against Dennys's shoulder. Dennys turns his head and rubs his nose against the hair there just above Sandy's ear. He hadn't even thought about Sandy being worried for him. He'd taken for granted that Sandy would bring him home eventually.
The unicorn stands suddenly and scrambles back towards the couch, and it's only then that Dennys realizes they aren't alone. Marina is still there in the apartment, wide-eyed and bracing against the doorframe like it's the only thing holding her erect. Her fingers curl white around the edges of the woodwork, and Dennys almost feels sorry for her. It can't be easy to see the unicorn, and he remembers the first time Japheth had shown him and Sandy: his skepticism and wonder at the way it wavered like a vision before him.
She'd shifted a little towards the room, and the motion was what startled the unicorn. For a long moment nothing in the room moves, silent but not in the way of the desert, a quiet filled with the hum of the heater and the slush of car tires outside. Marina reaches out one hand towards them, her mouth opened, and takes a stumbling step forward. The unicorn tosses its head towards the ceiling so that its beard waves spidery and fine beneath its chin, then flickers abruptly out of existence.
Sandy presses his lips together and turns to face Marina completely, his eyebrows scrunched into furrows. The twins are still standing very close, and Sandy's hand unconsciously seeks out Dennys's hip and rests there, as if to make sure that he's still concrete. Dennys says nothing of the gesture.
Sandy clears his throat and shifts his weight to his left foot. Dennys runs his hand through his hair and ducks his head, but before either twin can say anything in explanation or denial, Marina says in careful, measured words, "Clearly I am too tired. Sandy, would you walk me home, I think I need to get some sleep."
Sandy casts an anxious glance at Dennys, reluctant to leave, and Dennys blinks reassuringly at him. -- Go on with her, I'll be here when you get back.--
Sandy's shoulder nearest to Dennys shifts backwards the faintest bit. -- I won't be long, and you'd best not move an inch or I will castrate you for scaring me like this, I swear I will. -
"Alright," Sandy says out loud to Marina, and Dennys sits back down on the floor. He can still feel the stink of the desert in his hair and clothing, clinging to him like mildew. Marina gathers her coat and gloves off the hook near the door while Sandy fetches his from the closet. Her every gesture is faintly exaggerated, cautious and deliberate, as though she no longer trusts herself to know the world. Dennys can see an indistinct phosphorescence in the corner of the room that means the unicorn is still present, and he wonders if she can see it too. If that's why she's being so meticulous with her movements.
When they leave, Sandy looks back over his shoulder, and Dennys isn't sure what he sees, but his face settles into more reassured lines. Dennys crosses to the living room window and watches his brother's slow progress up the hill, trudging through the slush and ice.
Behind him, the unicorn solidifies. He doesn't have to look back to know it; the unicorn gives off enough heat that the room feels more cozy when it's there, as though it has brought a little piece of the desert back to New England to keep Dennys company or to remind him. Dennys can see it in the reflection on the windowpane: great silver horse incongruous in their tiny townhouse, superimposed translucent on the snowdrifts outside, safety and danger, desert and snow bank. Belief and the real world, laid against each other on the glass. Dennys raises his hand to the window and flattens his palm there. Fog radiates outward from the heat of his body, obscuring the street outside.
When Sandy returns, Dennys is back in the middle of the floor, the unicorn standing over him and nibbling delicately at his hair. "How'd she take it?" Dennys asks, because even if he disliked Marina, he feels guilty that he might cause difficulty for Sandy. He shivers in the arctic blast that slithers into the room through the briefly-opened door.
"I just --. Not well." Sandy shoves his hands into his pockets and doesn't knock the snow off the tread of his boots or take off his ski-cap. "I tried to explain to her, tried to show her how unicorns are sort of like physics, but she isn't --. She's not the type of person who believes in unicorns. She said it must have been a hallucination."
Dennys sighs, and Sandy crosses the floor and sits next to him, dripping boots leaving slushy puddles on the rug. Marina might deny that she saw the unicorn, but she saw it nonetheless, and it will affect her. She won't wake up from unicorn dreams to find one beside her, but even hallucinations leave their marks, and this one had the advantage of being true. It will change her whether she believes or not. Even things that you'll never see again leave scars for the short time you did see them. "I honestly didn't mean to go out." Somehow Marina's denial makes him feel even guiltier for worrying Sandy.
"Yeah," says Sandy, and Dennys hears something sadder than bitterness in his voice.
"Why didn't you wait to call it back? You could have kept it from her, you didn't need to call the unicorn until after she'd left." It's been bothering him, all the time while Sandy was walking Marina home. Why hadn't Sandy just waited until she'd left?
Sandy gives him a frown that says he's being dense. "I couldn't leave you out there," says Sandy, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"It wouldn't have mattered."
"Yeah," says Sandy in an insulted tone. "It would have. You disappear, and you think I'm not going to do whatever it takes to get you back? For God's sake, I nearly had a heart attack before I realized it was the unicorn that took you out with it."
"I'm sorry," says Dennys again, because it feels inadequate, but he is sorry, and a dark part of his heart is chiding him for ever doubting that Sandy would keep him safe above all else.
"Yeah, well." Sandy climbs to his knees with a groan and ruffles Dennys's hair. For a moment Dennys thinks he'll say something else, but Sandy just walks into their room, and Dennys can hear the sounds of him taking off his boots and undressing for bed. The unicorn tugs on his hair, and Dennys reaches up to swat it away. It bumps his fingers hard with its nose, and Dennys wonders whether unicorns ever feel regret.
Two weeks pass, and Dennys sees Marina only once. She comes over for dinner two nights after the Incident, as Dennys has taken to calling it in his head. Dennys is once again in the kitchen when the front door opens. For a moment he thinks Sandy is alone.
"God, I'm starving. Tell me there isn't much longer `til food," Sandy calls, stomping to knock his boots clean.
Dennys is making a roast. The leftovers will be turned into stew. "Another hour."
Indeterminate grumbling from the direction of the living room, then Dennys hears Marina's voice say, "It's okay, we can work on physics class homework until then." He didn't expect her to come anywhere near him after the Incident, so he's surprised that Sandy brought her home. Curious, Dennys pokes his head around the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.
Sandy and Marina are sitting on the couch. Between them are two physics books and a spray of papers and notebooks. Sandy has his arm up over the back of the couch, but Marina isn't leaning into his hand. She's sitting very straight, head bent over the book. When Sandy hands her his notebook to check a problem, she takes it without their hands touching.
Over dinner, her words are pronounced carefully, her 's's hard and clipped. She is polite to Dennys and friendly towards Sandy, so the conversation isn't as awkward as it might be. If he didn't know Sandy, he'd think nothing had changed, but he knows what Sandy's breath sounded like even before they could talk, so he knows what endings look like for his twin.
After dinner, Marina goes back to the couch and starts in on the physics again, while Sandy helps Dennys clear the table. In the kitchen as Sandy rinses off the plates, Dennys brushes his elbow in passing as he moves to the refrigerator. Sandy leans back into him when Dennys steps up a little too close to put a bowl in the cupboard over Sandy's shoulder.
Sandy squares his shoulders and sighs before he steps back out into the living room. They don't talk about it.
It's like nothing has changed between them, Sandy and Dennys same as always, and at night as he looks out on the frigid drifts of snow, Dennys thinks that Marina is yet another girl who has disappeared for them. She leaves a woman-shaped silhouette in the silences of their conversations, but she has vanished into thin air as surely as Yalith or a unicorn.
The one time he dares bring it up is uninformative.
"Do you want to have Marina over for supper?" Dennys is chopping peppers in the kitchen, and Sandy is in their bedroom, so that they speak in low shouts to be heard.
"Did --." He looks down at the cutting board and carefully finishes julienning his pepper, then closes his eyes and rests his forehead against the wood cabinet. "Did you two break up?" His voice sounds distorted as it bounces back off the cabinet.
"I guess." Sandy is closer, standing in the kitchen doorframe. Dennys doesn't have to look to know he's there; the tone of his voice is enough. "Look, Dennys, let it go, okay?"
But Dennys can't. "It was the unicorn wasn't it?"
"No," Sandy is too quick to deny. "We just --. Look, let it go. I have." He's lying, but neither of them calls him on it.
That night, it's Sandy who calls the unicorn while Dennys is still washing dishes. Dennys steps back into the bedroom to see them seated on his bed: Sandy widelegged in the middle with a book for studying, and the unicorn pressed up with the wall on one side and Sandy's left leg on the other. Dennys studies them out of the corner of his eye as he goes over to the desk to start his own homework.
"She wasn't Yalith," Sandy says unexpectedly, and Dennys looks up at him. Sandy and the unicorn are both looking back.
"I guess not." Dennys treads carefully.
"That's why," says Sandy, and looks back down at his book as though the conversation is over. But if he wants Dennys to believe that Yalith was the reason for the break with Marina, he'll have to do better than that. Marina had never been Yalith. They'd only broken up after Sandy called the unicorn for Dennys.
A few hours later, when the lights are out and they're both tucked into their respective beds, blankets cocooned up to their chins, Dennys says, "Did she ever believe?"
A long pause from above, then, "No," breathed out on a sigh, soft and sacred like the prophecies of the wind across the desert. "I think I knew it would turn out that way. Marina... always lived in the real world." Sandy shifts the bedding, cocooning himself more tightly. "Yalith --," he says, then stops. Yalith is the heart of the thing, Yalith and unicorns.
Dennys nods, aware that Sandy can't see it from the top bunk. Sandy will know. They've known each other that long. "Yalith loved -," Dennys says before he's thought about the words, but once they're out he doesn't know how to finish the sentence. You? Me? Us? The SandyandDennys that is more than either of us? In truth, it had been so simple; Yalith loved and that was enough.
"Us," Sandy says from above him, and Dennys feels a flare of hope warm beneath the pit of his stomach. "Yalith loved us."
"Do you think we'll ever find someone else like that?" Marina had never understood the irrational, whether unicorns or the something that lets Dennys know by instinct that Sandy is biting at his thumbnail as he thinks.
A long silence. "I think," Sandy says, "that so far we have been incredibly lucky."
"Yeah," Dennys says.
They sleep without saying anything more. Outside their window, the wind sculpts the snow into dunes.