Axiom Thorne: Portrait of a Lady Unraveling

Axiom Thorne is tall and wiry, with skin the color of whole milk that’s been warmed over a slow fire, then forgotten on the bedside table. Her white-blond tresses hang like teaser curtains around her angular face, obscuring it when she doesn’t feel like letting you see her long, thin nose, or her sharp jaw, or the fear creases that whisper across her forehead like stray hairs.

When you do get to see her face, the first thing you see is the dark black makeup streaking her eyes and the irises that cut through it like emeralds half-buried in soot. Her lips, also painted black, curl into a smirk more often than a smile. She inherited her mother’s elven ears and her father’s humanly sardonic wit.

Stick around and she might shift her hair all the way back behind her shoulders with long bony fingers that poke out of black leather gauntlets. She uses her mother’s “parlor magic” — as her nasty aunt would scoff — to add a shimmering holographic affect to chunks of her locks so that they reflect the light in ever-changing pink, blue, green, silver, back to pink flashes.

When she first boarded the Tenacious Sea with the others, she wore a runaway’s uniform: Dark tunic belted at the waist over nondescript breeches tucked into sensible boots. Since then, she’s been gifted far more fitting regalia for a future deity of the dead. A crown of vipers’ fangs sits precariously atop her head, a proud change from the hood she once used to shroud herself. Shiny black snakeskins knit and fuse together to create a harness and chest plate that cuts just above form-fitting pants made of the same dark scaly material. Slices of her white thighs reveal themselves between the loose weaving, invisibly protected by the armor’s magic. Stare at her new black platform boots long enough and you might see a beetle crawl up a wedged heel, over the lacing that binds around her calf, over its edge and into the safety inside of it.

The one thing Axiom has kept from her first appearance on the Tenacious Sea is also the only piece of color she deems fit to wear: A striped scarf, scrappy and uneven. Be careful not to touch it: Each color is the materialized aura of someone from whom she’s stolen magic. The scarf itself won’t taken anything from you, but it’s best not to let her or the Man with the Diamond Shoes and Gravel Voice know that you’ve taken an interest in it.

Don’t stare too long at the Whip of Certain Death at Axiom’s hip, either. Another upgrade since setting sail: It hangs in a coil not unlike the snakes that gave up their skins for her armor. And somehow it’s the mostly tightly wound item you’ll find on this woman who’s mentally unraveling all the while you’re looking at her.

Scene of the Write: Observations on a train to St. Louis

The following are observations made from a late June train trip from Chicago to St. Louis.

Just outside of Chicago: A boat graveyard, shells of old hulls and schloops tagged with graffiti inside a barbed-wire playpen. A shredded down comforter dangles from the wire, grayish-white stuffing droopy like mid-February snow drifts.

About an hour later, we’re stopped because they “have an issue on the train” they need to deal with. Anti-masker, perhaps — we just picked up some people in Joliet — but my brain is concocting a number of Mission: Impossible scenarios. Just outside the window is a country road flanked by stone pillars. The inscription is too small to read from here, but it’s fun watching as the drivers of cars are getting out and socializing while they wait for us to move out. There’s a man in a white sedan taking selfies, and a white limo with a driver dressed to the nines, taking his chances on getting out into the humid air.

On the way to Bloomington we pass a barn that looks like a drunk giant stepped into it, splintering half the roof and one wall down while the belfry still stands, weathered but intact.

Shortly after 5:15, the man sitting next to me — the one in bright green Chuck Taylor high-tops, with a copy of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that he’s halfway through, with a kid on the way and a weekend at the Cards game with some friends before he becomes a dad (all of which I learned by eavesdropping on his phone call for the first two hours of the trip) — offers me a shot of Bulleit Bourbon from a sealed bottle. I decline and watch as he proceeds to make a bourbon and coke in a thermos mug.

It’s happy hour on a Friday in the tiny towns we pass, too. A group sits in lawn chairs next to an above-ground pool in Macoupin County, a couple igloo coolers warming in the low evening sun. It makes me wonder what would be different about me if I had grown up in a town with a grain silo next door and Amtrak route cutting through my subdivision. Or if I’d be one of those people knocking back a Bud in the summer evening, watching the train from Chicago click-clack past, wondering what life would be like if I was on it.

Found fiction: Agatha’s notes, Part 1

This piece was discovered, undated, in a notebook from 2017. It’s clearly an unused piece from my work-inprogress house exorcism book.

They were the kind of people that you wanted to be friends with long enough to see how they planned their funerals.

Just a few minutes of aimless chit-chat over drinks — isn’t the weather unusually nice for this time of year? Sure is, won’t see me complaining. We were actually thinking of hitting the beach this weekend, can you believe it? The beach in March? Who’d have thought?! — and the room had disappeared. Now Agatha took diligent notes as she witnessed how he timed his sips of whiskey with his smiles, how she eyed and spun her wine around in the glass even though white wine doesn’t need aeration. Agatha scribbled down that she “was drunk off their ease and she hadn’t even tasted the beer he had shoved into her hand.”

Reading her notes a year later, I could tell from the way her tight script elongated, starting prim and preloaded in the notebook and quickly stretching to twice its size. My handwriting does the same thing when I’m rushing to capture a quote from a source or my own head. My brain’s a fast-talker.

Axiom Thorne: I’ve been a contender

So that’s the way my gravel-voiced, knit-throated patron wants to play it? Give me powers, pit me against his other creations, and see emerges alive?

Bring it on, I say.

Though I also wonder what the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes saw in that 12-year-old girl he lured into that alley with promises of magic. Maybe my mother’s aura was shining through me the way Aunt Lissie used to say it did — she was the nicest of the aunts, the most spiritual but the most ephemeral, having died when I was young.

One of my first memories was her voice saying “I see your mother’s aura in you.” I remember it because I didn’t know what it meant, as much as I desperately wished I understood everything that came from her sapphire-tinted lips. My mother used to say that Lissie, the first-born of the triplets, had drained her two other sisters of their elf blood before emerging from the womb with pearlescent hair and lips the color of emeralds. (They mellowed to a soft blue in her teen years.)

But elf blood doesn’t protect you from speeding wagons carrying green cakes to the market, especially when you’re in such a deep trance communing with the spirit world that you don’t pay attention to where you’re crossing the street. So 7-year-old me never really knew what Aunt Lissie saw that would make her say such a thing.

And now I suppose whatever glowing halo or rainbow-tinted haze she saw whenever she looked at Child Me had led to the events that put Adult Me in snakeskin armor, a Whip of Certain Death at my hip and the ability to summon demons and death in my hands, waiting to find out whether I’d become god or dust.

Fig explained the runes pretty clearly: The Man with the Colorful Scarf and his three fellow viziers each chose a mortal who could become their new god. They expect us to find and kill each other until the sole survivor ascends the throne. One contender already has attempted to murder me and half the Hydra crew, failed, and been reincarnated in the body of the blasted bird-monster that Urto’s been trying to raise in his tiny captain’s quarters.

This sick game reminds me of the town-wide mock-battles that we participated in as teenagers back home. The skirmish would last a month of every four summers. We would start with three or four “armies,” all soldiers armed with fake swords that we would use to tap our enemies on the shoulder or leg to signify a kill. By the end of the first week, the teams would succumb to in-fighting and friendly fire; new alliances would be made in the second week; and by the third, it would be every player for themselves. The last soldier standing, untouched by a wooden blade, would preside over a special party the day before the Crestbalm Fete.

I didn’t win the year I played, so don’t get your hopes up for a reminiscence of victory. Neither did Ansel. And you know the Baker’s Boy didn’t live long enough to even consider playing.

But there was something about the savagery of war touching our tiny, peaceful village that was so pervertedly delicious, so taboo, that even the most sage village leaders found themselves assisting in ambushes and placing wagers on who they thought might win.

So trust me when I say I’m not a stranger to the spirit of competition. I just like to know I’m competing before almost getting torn to pieces by the opposition.

I also like to know what I’m fighting for, be it a party or what the Man with the Colorful Scarf and his trilliant-bestowing companions are offering: Godly dominion over a city of undead who toil in the shadow of a black pyramid that strangely resembles the stone that seems to have taken the place of my beating heart.

And while the population of such a kingdom might deter some, I just come to the same conclusion: Real estate is real estate. A throne is a throne. And seeing as I feel like a god most days already, actually becoming one only seems like my logical next step.

Music of the Write: “Wolf Like Me” by Lera Lynn and Shovels & Rope

Two weeks ago as I prepped my current project for my beta readers, I found myself playing a single song on repeat — if it doesn’t land on my Spotify Wrap-Up in December, I would be surprised.

“Wolf Like Me” is originally a TV on the Radio song but I had no idea of its alternative rock origins when I started annoying my neighbors with Lera Lynn and Shovels & Rope’s cover. For some reason, the sound of Lynn’s voice, the harmonies, the arrangement and the growing tempo and strength of the track provided the perfect drumbeat by which to slice and dice, shuffle and scuffle, reword and rewrite the first half of Lucky Ellis’ story.

So I’m sharing it here: Maybe someone else will find they experience the same strange calming and energizing effect within its four minutes.

(And if you like Lera Lynn, check out all the music she made for True Detective, including “My Least Favorite Life,” which is also on the Lucky Ellis playlist.)

Vignette: Something I Know Won’t Desert Me

Greg’s car was so beat up that the little metal nameplate declaring its make and model was missing off the side and a family of rats had chewed a hole — an actual hole — through the rusty floor of the back seat so that a passenger could watch the pavement blur by, just between their feet. His grandfather had died in this car. No, it wasn’t that old a vehicle: it was the typical mid-1990s four-door sedan with a vinyl roof and velveteen seats that attracted drivers who should probably turn in their licenses and move into a retirement home with a nice bus service, rather than seek out a new set of wheels. Greg’s gramps died behind the wheel while stopped at a light. No one was hurt but they were annoyed at this fucking sedan blocking the intersection.

And now people were annoyed at this fucking sedan illegally speeding through intersections with a fleet of cop cars on its tail. As it happened, Greg’s own car broke down a day before the big heist, so he had to rely on the kindness of dead relatives to supply him with an emergency getaway ride for the crew. Needless to say, none of them, particularly Bellamy, was impressed.

But fuck Bellamy.

“Fuck Bellamy,” Leo screamed at the steering wheel as he tore down the street, burning a bitter layer of rubber off the sedan’s tires.

“Yeah, fuck Bellamy,” said Carm, known by the group as The Echo for the fact she rarely said anything other than what someone else had just said a moment earlier.

Fonzi — not his real name, but a moniker fitting his leather jacket and warm Henry Winkler charm — was bleeding out in the backseat, clutching his chest as if it would help. Greg hovered over him, putting pressure on seemingly every spot but the bullethole geysering blood. Every speed bump they hit meant a groan and a spray of lung blood hitting the back driver’s side window that Greg’s gramps had spent his final hours cleaning with Windex.

Something else about the car’s original owner: he got so frustrated with the radio one day that he punched the On/Off knob hard enough to leave the radio permanently on and set to a local oldies channel. So accompanying Fonzi’s screams, Greg’s squeams, Leo’s swears and Carm’s parroting was Stevie Wonder declaring that “for once in my life I’ve got someone who needs me.”

“Someone turn off the fucking Marvin Gaye,” Greg yelled.

“Hey,” roared Leo, taking a hard right turn. “Have some respect — its Stevie fucking Wonder, asshole.”

“It’s Stevie fucking Wonder,” Carm doubled-down.

“And it’s my fucking car — I don’t care who it is, just turn it the. Fuck. Off,” Greg demanded as they hit another bump. Fonzi coughed blood directly into Greg’s face, as if things weren’t messy enough.

“Seriously, what the fuck was Bellamy playing at back there?” Leo seethed. In the rear view mirror he watched with mirth as Greg wiped Fonzi’s blood off his face. The bastard deserved it, sticking them with this rust bucket of a getaway car.

“Fucking Bellamy,” Carm said.

Stevie Wonder continued singing. Leo turned it up to drown out the sirens gaining on their tail — sirens that fucking Bellamy practically set on their asses when he tripped the alarm. The man was a savant when it came to navigating security: by no way was that an accident. Neither was the smiling sparkle in his eyes as he watched the rest of the crew fall into a panic when the first cop shows up, gun drawn and handcuffs at his waist jingling hungrily.

“We can’t hit the safe house,” Greg said, like he was the only one in the car thinking it. If Fonzi didn’t moan in anguish every time Leo hit a bump, he would have hit every pothole between here and the border just to toss Greg around the back of the car. Remind him how he’d screwed them all with this pitiful excuse for a Plan B.

As it was, Fonzi was the only guy in the group — possibly in the city — that Leo liked, and because of that he was doing every mental calculation to figure out how Fonz could live and they could all stay out of prison.

As Stevie declared he had something that wouldn’t desert him, Leo was faced with the reality that he had to pick between the two: either they could put Fonzi in a hospital bed and themselves in handcuffs, or this baby-boomer-mobile would be a hearse by the end of the day. By the end of the hour. And it couldn’t happen to a nic

What the hell, Leo thought as he cut the wheel into the hospital parking lot. He didn’t like the others much anyway.

I see you shiver with antici…

Tim Curry wakes me up with that line some mornings. It’s just tucked into the folds of my brain, in that rolling enunciation he has:

“I see you shiver with antici—

—pation.”

I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture Show maybe twice in my life, thought a midnight dress-up show is on my bucket list. But there’s something about that line: About the onomatopoetic joke that combines a creative sense of word play with Curry’s incomparable delivery.

I can’t even say it wakes me up on mornings where something big’s happening. It didn’t wake me up this morning, but I’m thinking about it tonight as I’m waiting for something really wonderful to happen in just a couple hours. I’d say more but…this isn’t that kind of blog. Winky-face emoji.

Instead of shivering with anticipation, here’s the scene, written out as the biggest cheat of a blog post I think I’ve ever written:

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure album is spinning on the turntable. The cheap Victrola suitcase player doesn’t do justice to the depth of this album‘s production value, but after months of searching and waiting for Best Buy, then Amazon, to cancel my order of a vinyl copy, I finally got the album from a tiny record shop in Chicago. Buy local, buy indie. The song that’s playing is “Step Into My Life.” Every song on this album is good, though. This and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA kept me sane during Summer of My Suburban Pandemic.

A candle from Burke & Hare Co. is burning. It’s the Nevermore scent — tobacco, teakwood, vanilla and black pepper, like a high-line cologne that covers up the smell of the brownies I baked earlier.

Instead of reading the biography on Gypsy Rose Lee that’s waiting for me on my bedside table or watching the third episode of Halston on Netflix or god forbid doing more online shopping, I’m waiting for Sims 4 to finish updating so I can build a house and bulldoze it. That’s what I do now, I’ve learned. Sims isn’t fun as an adult: The excitement of building a person, giving them a house, finding them a job, make friends when you’re a barely a teenager completely dulls when you realize that your little virtual person is just as damn tired as you are, juggling the house, the job, the friends. So now I just build and demolish, like a kid constructing sandcastles at the beach.

I told a friend last night that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that my beta reader team has a copy of the first half of my novel: The logical thing would be to start the second half, but I’m far from logical with a can of Dark Horse wine in my system. He suggested I put on music and dance around the apartment.

Jessie Ware just started singing “Mirage (Don’t Stop).” Seems as good a time as ever to get on my my groove.

Beta Readers Assemble: Pulling together the ultimate review team

I’m trying something new with Lucky Ellis and sending out the first half of the draft to my beta reading team before I even get my head wrapped around the second half. There are a couple reasons for this: One is that I’m hoping that once the first half is finalized — which I won’t feel it is until my trusted cabal gives input — it’ll provide an unalterable basis for the second half.

The other reason is I just need a bit of a spiritual uplift to get my energy up for writing Part Two. Hey, we’re all human. We all need our ego boost sometimes.

I don’t usually post “how to” articles on here, but this morning I found myself thinking about my beta reader team for this project and how it’s different from the project before it, which was different from the project before that, etc. So here are my tips for finding your A-team for beta reading:

1. Think about the project, not the people.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of “she’s my best friend” or “he read the last one” or “my boss found out I write and really wants to read it now” when drafting your team. Don’t. (Unless your job might be in jeopardy if you leave your boss out, in which case maybe start looking for a different gig?)

Let the nature of the project be your guide. Did it require a lot of world-building and lore creation? Find your Game of Thrones fans and Dungeons & Dragons DMs. Is it a romance? Call on your friend who eats Harlequin paperbacks for breakfast. Did you risk getting put on a watchlist for all the dark, murdery Google searches you did? If you have any friends in the medical industry, consider asking them to take a look.

In practice, here’s what that looks like: My first book, Omaha, included a lot of neuroscientific and anatomical details, so my friend Noah, who had just concluded his neurology rotation at med school, was the first one I called upon to read it. He gave me some pointers but seemed rather disturbed at how spot-on I was in creating my speculative brain-chip-driven dystopia.

Noah didn’t read Nobody’s Hero, though. For that one, I called on Cody, who once led the Loyola University Comic Book Club and has an encyclopedic knowledge of heroes and villains across big-name and indie series. He was able to give me some pointers on how to structure Nightfire’s team and create a stronger “big bad” for the ending.

But there are a few constant draftees in my beta reading team, which brings me to no. 2:

2. Find your expert readers, and make sure they don’t all look like you.

Almost all my close friends are readers, but there are some that are simply voracious: They read entire books in a weekend and know all the Book World Drama that goes on. These are my Expert Readers and have an automatic place on the board.

The team is also as diverse as possible. I make a conscious effort to ensure my books have characters of various races, sexualities, genders, cultures, ages, etc., which means that I’m not always writing from my own personal experience: As a single, childless white woman of considerable privilege, I’m only have one kind of perspective. That’s why my beta teams are filled with people unlike me — women of color, non-straight friends, parents, older, younger.

Note, however, that having a diverse beta reading team is not a substitute for hiring a professional sensitivity reader. You should still pay someone with that expertise to read your work before publishing.

3. Convey the importance of the job but don’t take it personally when half your team fails on their mission.

They say when throwing a party to only expect half the guest list. The same goes for beta reading. I usually get 2/3 of my readers to give me feedback, and only 1/3 of them do it in the timeframe I ask. Why? Well, we’re all busy adults with lives and day jobs and better things to do than read my newest book. So give your beta team a flexible deadline and lots of gratitude up-front so they know you understand what an undertaking this is — and to drive home to them, too, how much their feedback means to you.

Because the truth is, without beta readers, a lot of our work wouldn’t make it off our laptops and Google drives and into the hands of agents, editors and publishers. So choose wisely!

Another dead darling from Lucky Ellis

Clearly editing is under way on Lucky Ellis, which means the literary bodies are being buried and this blog is the unmarked grave.

Here’s a tight two paragraphs that serve as better background on one Mr. Wade Higgs. I cut them because the book is, for the most part, third person non-omniscient. Spoiler alert: Wade Higgs is not the kind-hearted but gruff outlaw he appears to be in the first chapters of the story.

So here it is:

The fact was that Wade Higgs was tired of bedding only women who did all the work. Sure, there was a pleasure to be had having a beautiful — or at least palatable — lady ride his dick while his only role was to enjoy the view and sensation, but it was becoming too predictable, and if there was one kiss-of-death sign for a gunslinger train robber, it was predictability.

No, what Wade Higgs had come to realize was that he missed having some active responsibility in all the screwing he was doing. He brought this up to Mimi once, hoping she would understand and point him to the best girl in the house for such a task, but the woman she recommended thought he wanted resistance. That wasn’t the case at all — he merely wanted a consenting, desiring novice. So when he saw Lucinda Ellis, a woman he already felt a greater fondness for than any woman in his history, dressed in a chemise and corset, he had put the two together. And, as luck and Lucky would have it, she was consenting and delivered in the exact way he craved.

Vignette: Delilah, Spectral Resident of Haythorne Mansion Events and Memories Center

Delilah missed orange juice cans. Orange juice didn’t come in cans anymore — at least not in this new kitchen, with every surface now sterile stainless steel. There wasn’t any food in this kitchen anymore until the people in white coats arrived with clear boxes of sliced vegetables, stacks of boring white china, and unlimited cans of Sterno.

She missed rolling her waist-length black hair — freshly washed, maybe freshly ironed — up in the cans, pinning it there for an hour, and watching as she undid it all and the locks would fall now tit-height, perfectly bent in on the ends, the exact way Max liked it.

Max was her boyfriend at the time of her death, see. He took her to all the swinging pads for parties. She missed the parties too, come to think of it. And that low-cut orange jumpsuit she wore, with the brass and turquoise chain belt that hit just at the wide part of her hips. She bought it in a small boutique just down the street from this house she now called home. She should have been wearing it that night in 1973. She would have, had she known she’d spend the rest of eternity in the clothes she stepped out in that night.

As it was, she had worn the two-piece yellow set that everyone thought looked exactly like what Cher wore to the Oscars just months before: yellow chiffon with beading that showed off the flat belly she had finally attained on her steady diet of cocaine and not much else. She relished the reactions to it more than the outfit itself.

And now she was dead, and when people saw her, it wasn’t the scandalous clothing that inspired the gasps and double-takes. It was the fact they were faced with the spectral figure of a woman who had snorted a line and exhaled her life in the smaller guest bathroom at a hopping party at 666 W. Walcott Street on June 2, 1973, and now stepped out on any given afternoon to find herself in the middle of Haythorne Mansion Events and Memories Center during a wedding, anniversary party, family reunion, Super Sweet 16, bat or bar mitzvah, graduation party, christening, First Communion, bachelorette party, bachelor party, funeral luncheon or — and this was the most disgusting of all — an intervention.

So she did what any good cocaine overdose victim does for 50 years after dying in a house bathroom: She started pilfering whatever drugs she could find in guests’ purses and pockets.

It’s not that the pocket squares hiding joints, hollow tampon tubes of blow, sticker books of acid, Altoid tins of molly, or sunglasses-case-turned-heroin-kit did much for her. They did nothing, actually. Delilah just needed the high of causing a bit of mischief to brighten her days. She also liked the privacy of that second bathroom and didn’t need another fool OD-ing and joining her domain here in the house.

It was crowded enough in here with Walter tsk-tsking her from his perch on the upstairs banister, wearing that filthy coat from 1918 and going on and on about the goddamn Spanish Flu.