Excerpt: Meet Pru, from “Nobody’s Hero”

When the world needed saving, Pru needed a manicure.

It was her client’s job to fight evil. It was the nail technician’s job to fight overgrown cuticles. And it was Pru’s job to make sure that once the threat was vanquished, the world restored to harmony, that her nails looked good as she waved the press away from her sole responsibility as a public relations agent: Miss Opal Hayes, alias Nightfire, one of the most popular state-authorized masked vigilantes.

While the manicurist filed away what was left of last week’s Fleetwood Black Cherry from her left hand, Pru scrolled her phone with her right, scanning her newsfeed for any live streams of her client’s heroics. Unlike some of her peers who represented other vigilantes with checkered pasts, she never asked Nightfire to wear a body camera during combat.

Not that Opal would have acquiesced. While she was almost too open about her past for her own good, she demanded her privacy when not wearing the mask. No one had ever seen her face, and even the name Opal Hayes was a pseudonym, as if anyone would think someone named Mr. and Mrs. Hayes had looked at their perfect baby girl born more than a century after 1890 and think Opal was a fitting name. They may have given her a severe nut allergy, but not a name fitting for a 1920s ingenue.

Pru Mornay’s parents gave their daughter a perfect powerhouse name — a one-syllable punch followed by the soothing balm of a French-sounding surname with a phonetic spelling. It was a name made for a high-profile, high-demand woman, given to a girl raised to be a high-profile, high-demand woman. And that’s exactly who she became, against her best efforts.

Her scrolling came to a halt when a call came through. She stared at the three letters glowing on her phone and debated whether to answer. If she didn’t pick up now, the caller would just keep trying, and Pru couldn’t risk the distraction later. She hit the green button and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hi Mom.”

“I wanted to remind you that this weekend is the Gladstone Gala,” Lilah Mornay said without a greeting. “You still haven’t told me if you’re coming with us this year.”

“Because I don’t know if I’ll be working.”

“That’s our game, sweetie,” Lilah said. “But you still have to have a life.”

It occurred to Pru for the thousandth time since her birth that her mom only gave advice that would steer people to help her achieve some personal goal. It was how Lilah came to have her own public relations firm. It was also how Pru ended up at the same college, in the same degree program, and now a senior private representative at D&L Mornay PR. In this case, Lilah wanted her whole happy family — philandering husband, cuckolding wife and I-need-to-focus-on-my-career daughter — to be present for a ridiculously opulent charity event that would have seemed the stuff of satire if not for its ability to get rich people to open their wallets.

“I have nothing to wear,” Pru lied, switching her phone to the other ear and allowing the manicurist to yank her arm halfway out of its socket so she could attack the other half of Fleetwood Black Cherry.

“We’ll go shopping. Make it a girls’ day.”

Girls’ Day with her mother usually involved a maxed-out credit card, more martinis than Pru could handle and off-the-record rants about office assistants with caky makeup, thick legs and names like Astrid or Ashley or Ammanda With Two M’s.

“I don’t have time, Mom. Have you been watching the news? Op- I mean, my client is a little busy today, and that means I’m on deck for the next 48 hours.”

Pru felt the excitement flush her face. She didn’t particularly like the hurry-up-and-wait that came with relying on havoc — and the subsequent vanquishing of it — to give her life purpose, but she did enjoy the adrenaline rush that came with knowing her next 48 hours would involve drafting remarks for Nightfire’s press conference, accepting and rejecting interview requests, and perhaps most exciting of all, participating the Federal Vigilante Unit’s debriefing, which only she, her client and a handful of FVU officers were allowed to attend.

“Well why didn’t you say so? Go get ‘em, baby girl,” her mom said, clicking the call to a close.

Pru went back to scanning the news feeds. A few posts from unverified sources using the hashtag #Nightfire had surfaced, but nothing from any official accounts. She read them to see what public opinion had to say on her client’s behalf.

@Bocknstein29: Holy shitt #Nightfire is on my block blasting some dude with a green ray gun. GO GET EM GURL.

@Glamazon_3: Uh, I think I just saw #Nightfire outside the Starbs and Green and State.

@B!ggusD!ckus: Hey #Nightfire when ur done kicking ass, I’ll gladly eat urz. Hit me up. #Nightfire #SexyLady

Pru had discouraged her client from having any personal accounts, recommending she use a special service that could keep her online reputation clean but still give people what they want. After another vigilante, Quantum, had gotten drunk at a convention the year before and posted a video of himself describing how much amputees creeped him out, it wasn’t just his reputation that had tanked. His PR rep, one of Pru’s former acquaintance from college, had closed shop and started experimenting with apps that used photo recognition to identify any breed of dog. There was no way Pru would let Nightfire take to the web, though she wasn’t sure Opal would be willing to do that, either.

“Color?” asked the manicurist, allowing exasperation to creep into her voice now that she had tried three times to get the woman’s attention. She knew this woman. There was nothing about her behavior that separated her rom the other clients: She was more interested in her phone than in the human being shaping her sorry-ass fingernails, all the while trying not to get caught watching the dancers bouncing and grinding in the muted music videos playing on the screens above each table. The salon manager insisted that this woman was famous — that he had seen her on TV before, and therefore she was an important client — but to Angelique, she was just another set of dull, picked-apart nails begging for love and attention. At least she tipped well.

“Sorry,” Pru said. “Number 67.”

Angelique retrieved You Look Radishing from the storeroom and returned to see the rap videos on the screens had been replaced with a live news report from just a mile away. Almost everyone in the salon was watching it.

“Is that Scarlet Sword?” Francesca asked from behind the reception desk. “I like her.”

“Nah, she’s not carrying a katana,” the salon manager said. “That’s gotta be Nightfire.”

Pru’s head snapped up.

“Shit,” she hissed, pushing her chair back with a loud scrape. Turning to the manicurist, she uttered her apologies and dug in her wallet for two twenties. “I’ve got to go. Raincheck on the color?”

She didn’t wait for answer, just blindly took a pump of almond oil hand lotion and strode out of the salon, taking a hard left and disappearing from view before the bell above the door stopped ringing.

Fifteen minutes later, Angelique would see the woman on the TV talking live to a field reporter a block away from the scene and explaining that Nightfire’s first and foremost priority was the safety of Centropolis’ citizens and the preservation of their liberty, dignity and integrity.

This is the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called Nobody’s Hero.

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Writespiration: “Worst Poetry” by Sarah Kay

Sarah Kay is my favorite living modern poet, full stop. I could listen to her all day. “Mrs. Ribeiro” contains stunning imagery and emotion. I gave my mom a hardback copy of “Point B” for Christmas and watched tears well in her eyes as she read it right there under the tree.

But there has always been “Worst Poetry,” one of the first poems I heard her read. At the time it was cute but not my favorite. But as I’ve grown up a bit and experienced new people and relationships, I understand it better.

Her poem deals a lot with love and relationships, but it also points out that there’s a distinct difference between a muse and a supporter: The person she describes in the poem doesn’t make her work better, but they do make her life better. Now is there a strict mutual exclusivity between who inspires you and who encourages you? I’m still figuring that out. Maybe another blog post is coming on that.

But for now, let me say this: Muses can be dangerous. Support is forever beneficial.

Find someone who makes you want to work on your art. Who wants to be there while you work on it but knows art takes solitude sometimes. Who is is open to examining your art but doesn’t ask to see it. Who’s patient when you say you think it’s crap but knows better than to say “It isn’t!” even when they haven’t read it.

And get rid of the mofos who take pride in causing your writer’s block. I’ve known those people before. They suck, and we no longer talk.

Vignette: Marvin Gaye

At first I tried to contain it, sing it in my head — all the joy you fill me with, inaudible to everyone but me, like my own private practice that I refuse to share. But the more I tried to merely think the words, the more my lips moved, the more the syllables escaped from my vocal cords, the louder I got until I didn’t need a microphone for the whole world to hear me.

You’ve got me dancing and singing along to Marvin Gaye, the happiness and warmth and hope leaking out of me in the form of flat notes and white girl dance moves because mercy, mercy me: how sweet it is that ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby.

 

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The Chicago Ave. tunnel under Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

Vignette: In search of an idea

My left shoe’s heel is worn down to the nail. Now when I take a step just the wrong way, the even click-clack-click-clack that usually accompanies my gait turns into a click-clack-tonk-clack-click-clack-plink-clack, and I’m reminded how much tile is in this office every time I walk down the hall to an uneven backbeat.
But sitting at my desk is hardly an option, because even though the click-clack-click-clack of the keys beneath my fingers remains consistent, the ideas they’re spelling out go click-clack-click-clack-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk as I type and backspace, type and backspace. “Write something fresh,” I tell my fingers, but they don’t want to cooperate.
They’re not sure whether too many people have written about the way Christopher Nolan’s characters tend to die midsentence, like Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “Harvey, listen to me, some–” BOOM. Or in the middle of Matt Damon’s villain monologue blocking out Matthew McConaughey’s warning not to BOOM. Or Ellen Paige being slammed by flying café debris while asking Leo DiCaprio why, if this is a dream, they BOOM. And they know too many people have pointed out the director’s fascination with dead or murdered wives, despite his own spouse being his producing partner on every project.
So instead they try to remember the typing patterns that wrote the letter to Pixar asking if Bonnie in Toy Story 3 was supposed to be an older version of Boo in Monsters, Inc., long before a more developed “Pixar universe theory” surfaced online.
They try to replicate how they wrote about the parallels between the Republican National Convention in July and the plot of Space Jam.
They rack their fingertips against the desk, wondering what click-clacking had at one time composed 2,000 words under the title “Bang Bang: The Sexuality of Gun-Slinging, Sword-Fighting Women of Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise and Kill Bill.”
They even tried to replicate the exact path they took across the keyboard when crash-typing the social and political messages behind the hero flying a nuclear bomb away from civilians in the finales of two of 2012’s most successful films, Avengers Assemble and The Dark Knight Rises.
But the choreography is gone from their memory, and the dance steps are out of practice, so all they can do is replicate the sound of my shoes in the hall. Click-clack-tonk-clack-plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk-click-clack-click-clack.

Short story: Septimus

I don’t mean to sound like Hemingway when I tell this story, but he got it right when it came to war. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that war is the death of love and the absence of decency.

Evanna and I were very much in love. That’s not her real name, of course, but even though she’s gone, I don’t want to betray her memory. We met in bootcamp before being shipped out. If she told this story, she would say it was sunny and warm — one of those all-American days where everyone has a hot dog in one hand and a slice of watermelon in the other. But I’m telling it, and I’ll say it was a downpour day, where the mud swallows your boots whole and the rain soaks right through your fatigues so you feel like you’re swimming rather than marching through the compound. Squelch, squelch.

We didn’t know what was in store, and at that moment, we didn’t care. Evanna — Evie, I’ll call her, because that fits her personality far better — Evie and I locked eyes and never once looked away. Of course, we couldn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t allowed anymore by the time we joined the ranks. I heard it was once, but that was long ago before I was born. Before Evie was born.

Still, there were nights where the explosion of nearby fire fights were our lullaby and the shouts of our fellow women crooned us into a frenzy. Those were the nights our hands would touch while we were sleeping in our beds — our separate beds. Just that little bit of contact, that little bit of intimacy, was enough to get us through the most chaotic nights.

We weren’t always the ones in the tent those nights. I remember, God love her, Evie bringing me a Styrofoam mug of hot cocoa one night when I had watch duty.

“It’s the desert,” I said when she handed it to me. “It’s 95 degrees and I’m in full combat fatigues.” The last thing I needed was a hot beverage. But Evie knew that.

“I wanted to give you a little comfort, you dope,” she said, sarcastically frustrated. That was something about Evie; she had the patience of a lamb but the wit of wolf.

I looked down into the cup of instant cocoa and see little clumps of pink and blue goo floating on top.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, playing along in our game of mock annoyance.

“We didn’t have real marshmallows, so I raided the Lucky Charms,” she said. “It might not be perfect, but it’s hot cocoa. It’s comfort.”

So we sat in the dirt together, taking hits from the hot chocolate and avoiding sporadic hits from enemy artillery and hiding our embracing hands under the sniper rifle I had trained on the horizon.

No one caught on, much to our surprise. If they did, they never said anything. The women in our unit were good people. Except for Babs; she had a mean streak wider than Midcountry. It didn’t stop her from being a good soldier, though. She saved Evie once from a landmine. Sometimes I wish she hadn’t. It might have spared Evie from what eventually did happen to her.

On the dawn of our last day on tour, a dozen or so insurgents stumbled upon our camp. You could tell they didn’t intend to fight, but what else could they do when we had already started shooting? Evie was out behind the tent, doing her tai chi or whatever she did at sunrise every day. When Babs fired the first round, Evie snapped to action. Unfortunately, she had sacrificed protection for flexibility and had left her Kevlar vest and helmet in the tent that was now on fire from a grenade.

There was nowhere for her to run, so she found me. I covered her in a makeshift foxhole we dug in the sand, sheltering her under my body as I shot into the desert. We were down to three insurgents when a grenade landed in the foxhole with us. God bless us, it didn’t go off, but it gave us the fright of our life and we scrambled out, right into the line of fire.

We somehow evaded the AK-47s, but it wasn’t the end. Someone yelled that the enemy was down to one, but he was somewhere out there, hiding or running away. After almost 20 minutes of staying low — Evie and I had found refuge between two supply crates and the mess tent wall — we started to come out of hiding. Foolish us, we thought the enemy had run off; there was no sign of movement.

“We lucked out,” said Evie, smiling. “I guess we’ve got good karma, because we really lucked out.”

“Thanks to all that Buddhist stuff you do,” I replied. “You know, your tai chi outfit almost got you killed.”

“’Almost’ being the operative word,” she smiled. “But you saved me. You really did.”

Knowing we were still in the confines of the crates, she leaned in to kiss me, something that we had done a lot of the night before after the raging party our bunkmates had thrown for us. In fact, we had gone a little far the night before; it was pure serendipity that no one walked around the back of the mess tent.

At precisely the moment her lips were half an inch from mine, the last insurgent resurfaced and decided to fire of another round.

It hit Evie in the side of her head.

There wasn’t much that we could do other than get her to the nearest hospital. The man who shot her was long gone, using the scramble to get her to safety to run away. That’s what we could all guess.

That was before they removed the slug engraved with Omni-Corp’s logo from her cheekbone, which had shattered, bone fragments and shards slicing her sinuses and nerves to bits.

So when you ask why I’m here, I guess it’s because of that. Omni-Corp killed Evie. It wasn’t the bullet or the blood loss — although the surgery almost did kill her. It was when the doctors found traces of me all over her body from the night before, our last night together, and knew exactly why Omni-Corp had sent out a sniper to take care of one of their finest. And because the doctors were obligated to put it in the report, I was brought in for questioning and tortured until I admitted that Evie hadn’t just borrowed my clothes. That we were not only comrades in arms but also comrades in the arms of each other.

When Evie’s reconstruction surgery was complete, they didn’t let me see her. I wasn’t even allowed in the hospital. After my interrogation, my injuries were critical, but they sent me an hour away to a different hospital to get cleaned up. Our squadron was forbidden from speaking to either of us. We were both discharged from the service, but almost a year apart so we wouldn’t find each other on the boat back home.

I found out about Evie’s death by complete accident. My mother had died, and I was at her funeral when I saw a headstone bearing Evie’s last name, which was rather unique. Two men were at it, and I asked if either of them knew her. Just from the way one put his hands in his pockets, as if trying to stuff a memory away out of sight and mind, I knew.

She was buried on the coast after “complications related to her injuries” had killed her. Complications, I learned later, that involved a long rope and an overturned footstool.

Since then, I’ve tried to be like Evie, looking at the sunny side of the rain cloud, but I’ve failed. The human race is one fucked up bunch of animals; love this way, don’t love that way. I guess that’s why I go by the nickname ‘Septimus’ from that Virginia Woolf book; after his friend, his other half, died in the terrors of war, Septimus didn’t have any hope left. I have no hope, but I keep trying to get some. Maybe one day I’ll be able to rejoin the human race and not see them as vile and dictating. In the meantime, I still drink cocoa with Lucky Charms marshmallows on hot days because I need to know things might get better. I need that comfort.

Vignette: “Promise me”

“Promise me just one thing,” she said over the crunch of Pringles between his teeth. She waited for the swallow, the contemplation over eating another.

Then she took advantage of the way his heart was facing her as he reached for the tube to strike it with her arrow:

“When you’re done with me, please tell me in no uncertain terms.”

Blink, and you would have missed the micro-hesitation of the chip en route to his mouth as he was forced to consume her words first.

“Why do you think I’d be done with you?” He asked, popping the Pringle in his mouth and letting it rest there. He waited for it to get soggy, except her request had left his mouth dry. How did she know that he knew he couldn’t let go, long after his hands had given out? It was like the cliff side of her had formed itself like handcuffs around his wrists, refusing to yield no matter how hard he tried to wrench free.

Writespiration: Love thy characters (via @angiecthomas)

I should be editing the full manuscript of my book, Omaha, before sending it out to my beta reader book club, but I’m not. At first I thought my procrastination was out of exhaustion — I dedicated the entire month of November and first week of December 2017 to it, and since then have burned out on it. It happens.

But then I read this tweet from The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas:

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This was the second time I had seen her refer to the love she has for Bri — even going so far as to say she likes her more than The Hate U Give‘s main character, Starr. I remember feeling that way about some of the characters I wrote back when I was penning books while pretending to be taking notes in freshman year of high school. But with Omaha, I can’t say the same.

The fact is, none of my characters evoke my love. Or any feeling, for that matter. Omaha, Plunder, Varsity and Flax are like the people I hung out with in middle school: Now that the obligation to stick with them is over, they bore me and I have little to say to them (or make them say to each other, as the case of writing has it). It’s not a tangible feeling like hate or dislike, but one of indifference, which is possibly even worse because it means I have to build emotion from scratch instead of just tweak it from one thing to another. Unlike when I used to write in high school, no amount of dream casting has helped — though I’ll admit it’s a nice diversion envisioning Samira Wiley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephanie Beatriz and Lin-Manuel Miranda armed to the teeth with skill-enhancing microchips in their brains and running around post-exodus Chicago streets.

So thanks to Thomas, I’m going back to my draft to see where I became numb to these characters and figure out ways to fall back in terrible, conflicted love with them. How can I expect readers to feel something for them if their own creator is indifferent?