The party is ruined the moment Gwen spots Wesley standing by the piano. The rest of the spacious condo, with its polished hardwood floor and tastefully arranged furniture, grows muted. The gentle chatter of the other upscale guests and the moody voice of Cesária Évora coming from the artfully hidden speakers blur into the background. All she sees is Wesley. All she hears is his laugh.
The host, Ben Dambers, hovers around Wesley, with a bowtie on his neck and a martini in his hand. His boisterous voice, already half-laughing, starts that old nugget, “Hey! So a horse walks into a bar…” And Wesley laughs at the punchline, even though he’s heard the joke a million times. Even though Gwen knows he hates it.
She sees him throw his head back, sees his playful little white beard swaying in the air. Sees how his rich mane cascades over his neck and shoulders, like cream caressing a Greek god. His muscles ripple with laughter, but Gwen knows it’s with strain too. She doubts anyone else here knows how much parties stress Wesley out. He does that anxiety coping thing, where he rests his rear left foot behind the right, and something catches in her throat when she sees the playful tufts of snowy fur on his fetlocks. And the impossibly rich black of his hooves, deeper than the ocean.
She buried him in her past long ago, and seeing him now breaks a dam of memories. The sun shimmers atop them, but there’s a ravenous undertow threatening to pull her into the abyss.
Gwen clenches her jaw. This is her first party in forever. She has a right to be here. COVID did hell on her social life, on her everything life.
Still, she wonders if she can just slip out the door without anyone noticing, without Wesley – oh. He sees her.
For a moment they lock eyes. His expression is inscrutable and she hopes hers is too. She feels her heart rattling her ribcage, and when her eyes are drawn inevitably to his most prominent asset, to the very source of his glory, she finds she can’t breathe. There it is – fifteen inches long, hard as a rock, almost vertically erect: the single spiraling horn jutting out of his forehead.
She turns away and hurries to a side table, covered with hors d’oeuvres. She rests her hand against it, waiting until the dark spots at the edge of her vision ebb away. She exchanges a pleasantry she doesn’t recall with another guest she doesn’t know, and then she’s alone. By the time she’s eaten her third quiche, she’s decided staying is a mistake, and that she’ll leave.
Then she hears the unmistakable clop of hoof-on-hardwood.
“Gwendolyn,” he says, softly.
“Wesley.” There’s more strength in her voice than she thought possible.
They look at each other for a moment, neither sure of how to proceed. Wesley blinks a couple times, then dips his muzzle into the punch bowl. A moment later, it’s almost completely drained.
“It’s been…” he says, licking the orange staining his white coat, “a really long time.”
“Years,” she says. She swallows. “You look… good.”
“Thanks. You, um, you also look good.”
“I’m surprised to see you here.” She knows it’s a mistake as soon as she says it.
“Well I don’t know why. Me and the Dambers go way back. Frankly, I’m surprised to see you here. Or anywhere.”
She faces him, her hands fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, c’mon, Gwen,” he says, scooping up some shrimp with his tongue. “I’ve seen your Facebook. Living in your little fear bubble. Oh, I’m ever so thankful I can work from home! Oh, I’m ever so thankful I do my part by ordering out! I’m such a contributor! Jesus, Gwen. Not everyone has the luxury of staying safe, and then there’s you, just signaling your virtue.”
Then Wesley leans in so they’re almost nose to nose, and he makes an exaggerated inhalation. “And trust me, lady. I know virtuous maidens – and you ain’t it!”
Gwen scoffs, and then a second time, her words having completely abandoned her. She feels her face grow hot. “You son of a bitch.”
Wesley rolls his eyes.
“Yeah, well, you think you’re so high and mighty?” she says. “I’ve been seeing you online too. Bucking curfews, going to COVID raves!? What the hell is the matter with you? I bet you’re not even vaxxed!”
Wesley snorts. “Oh-my-god. You don’t actually believe in that vaccine stuff, do you?”
Again, she’s at a loss for words. “Y-you don’t!?”
“C’mon. You think shoving viruses into your body will somehow make you immune to them? That sounds as stupid as homeopathy.”
“I can’t believe you’re an anti-vaxxer. I used to think you were smart.”
“Oh, that’s droll. I’m a unicorn, Gwen. I can’t get sick.” Wesley leans in, whispers for her alone. “And I want you to think about something, Gwen. Yes, you, little miss super-responsible-government-drone. Here’s a secret: COVID isn’t over.” He smiles cruelly. “It’s not over just because wE’rE tIrEd oF iT. God, the arrogance of man. In fact, it’s in this room right now.” He sniffs the air again. “I smell… three flavours of it.”
She looks around the room wild-eyed.
“But don’t worry,” Wesley says. “That’s why I’m here. See, it’s like a party favour, right? Everyone who leaves, I’ll just give them a tap with the old horn – boop! – and everything is cured.”
A guest falls down and crashes into a coffee table, sending several glasses shattering against the floor. Witnesses raise a great “Whoa!” Wesley and Gwen both look to the commotion.
Gwen sees a young woman – can’t be much older than a teen, really – in a yellow dress so short it leaves nothing to the imagination, being pulled up from the table by a pair of men. She giggles as she goes up, and stumbles drunkenly when they set her down. When she paws at one of them, he intercepts and redirects her groping hands to the other – the Dambers’ son – who all too eagerly receives them. Wesley’s eyes narrow.
“Friend of yours?” Gwen says, relishing his discomfort.
“That is Monica,” he mutters through clenched teeth. “My… companion.”
“You find her in a cradle?”
Wesley snaps to her, his lips drawn tight. “She is a virtuous maiden most fair.”
They hear Monica’s shrill, spring-breakian cheer, and Gwen sees her – champagne bottle in hand – jump onto the Dambers’ boy’s back, riding him down a hallway to another part of the party.
“I’m sure she is,” Gwen says, every word sopping wet with sarcasm.
“You’re just bitter,” he says. “Just a bitter old woman.”
“That’s just like you. You could never see the good in people. She’s special! On the inside! Like, destined for great things. Pure and full of love and benevolence.”
“Oh, purity! You’ll chase anything in a skirt for some idiotic definition of purity! Have you ever stopped to look at the damage you cause? Everywhere you go you ensorcell these poor girls, completely stealing their hearts. And then you break them.”
“At least they have hearts, you shriveled old harridan.”
They glare at each other for a moment, pain leading to anger leading to pain. Another commotion interrupts them. The Dambers’ boy runs into the room with his tie askew, his eyes wide, his face powdered with white.
“Help!” he shouts. “I think she’s OD’d!”
Wesley shuts his eyes, sighs. “Damn it Monica,” he whispers. “You promised.” He gallops off with the Dambers’ boy. For everyone else, that’s the cue that the problem is handled, and the party resumes.
Gwen doesn’t savour the victory. It’s hollow and past its prime, a marlin washed up on the beach and sitting out in the sun. There’s tears in her eyes, equal parts sadness and anger and the weight of the past. She decides she needs air and heads to the balcony.
There’s a brisk breeze that carries away the noise of the party, and the nighttime city stretches before her. An ocean of silent concrete and steel, with countless tiny stars trapped in it, burning as bright as the light behind her. Countless stories of countless other souls, some happy, some miserable, some celebrating, some mourning. Some, gathered together with others. Pretending they weren’t alone, drifting in this fathomless sea. Like her.
She gave up smoking this morning, and she decides she’ll give it up tomorrow morning again. She pulls a cigarette out of her pack, then her lighter. The breeze steals the sparks and she grows frustrated. She jams her thumb on the trigger too hard and the lighter falls from her hands, drowning in the black void beyond the balcony.
“Damn it,” she whispers.
She hears a clip, then a clop.
“Allow me,” Wesley says. He bows his head beside her, the tip of his horn glowing brightly, eclipsing the lights of the city. She holds her cigarette to it and it lights.
She digs out another cigarette, arches an eyebrow. He nods. She places it in his mouth and lights it from her own.
They stand in silence for a while, enjoying the sweet promise of nicotine.
“How’s Monica?” she says.
“I healed her,” he says. Then, “You’re right about her. She’s not who I thought she was. We’ve… parted ways.”
Gwen nods. Another puff. Somewhere, they hear a police siren, then another. Somewhere, someone is having the worst day of their life. Then the breeze steals it away too.
“What ever happened between us?” she asks, leaning on the railing. “Was I… not who you thought I was?”
Wesley looks up the stars above. He shakes his head. “Nobody is ever exactly who we think they are. But you… you were the closest. I… I think that scared me.” He sighs. “In the end, you moved on. And I…”
“Didn’t,” she finishes for him.
She leans into his shoulder, and they look up at the silver moon for a fleeting moment. Soon enough time will steal it away, and they’ll be cast adrift again. But they’ll always have the moon, as they once did, as they never will again. One more silent milestone on the longest road.