Dottie’s Plot for Revenge

Yvette and her brother Mark sat across from the cemetery director, flipping through the pamphlets and doing the math in their heads of how much the endless fees would probably add up to, and whether it would be worth it.

“I suppose it’s odd,” Yvette said, tapping her toe nervously. “Most people who come here want to bury someone, and here we are, wanting to, to—”

“Exhume,” her brother finished for her.

“It’s really not that strange,” the cemetery director said. “We move people around all the time. Last month we had a couple remove both their sets of parents so they could be cremated and relocated to Georgia.”

“Well, we’re just hoping to move her a few plots over,” Mark said.

About fifty yards over, as she’d specified when she shattered the mirror over his fireplace, blasted them with Frank Sinatra and threw their Thanksgiving turkey out the window. The dead know what they want, but they have to resort to dramatic measures for anyone to notice.

~

This is a soap opera.

This is a soap opera starring nothing but people who are dead.

The setting: Somewhere on a different plane from here.

When Dottie Truman died, she knew her husband still had enough years ahead of him that he would need to find another companion. So rather than curse him to another two decades of lonely nights in front of late night television, she used her dying breath to tell Peter Truman to fall in love again.

Which he did, to a lovely woman named Beatrice Harper. And Peter and Beatrice were very much married and in love for fifteen years before they passed just weeks apart at the ages of 97 and 91, respectively.

Dottie watched all of this from her little ethereal plot of the afterlife. She cried with a mix of joy and sentimentality at their sweet little wedding at the Beech Tree Shoals Retirement Home. When Peter went first, she prepared to meet him with one eye on his funeral, where Beatrice had to be helped by her son Tyrone and stepson Mark across the rolling field of the cemetery. Dottie was so busy checking her face and straightening her dress that she didn’t notice right away that instead of in the grave next to hers, he was being interred half a football field away, surrounded by gravestones marked “Harper.”

But when she did finally notice? Had anyone been near her own grave, they would have noticed the dirt above her coffin roil like the angry sea. Later on the groundskeeper would think that the black bear rumored to roam the woods around the perimeter of the cemetery had gotten in and started foraging.

“Trying to do my job for me?” He muttered as he set about seeding the grass in the disturbed dirt. “Wrong plot — no one’s due to be buried here anytime soon.”

See, Dottie was buried with the Trumans in a double plot that her husband was supposed to return to once he died. But that bitch Beatrice either didn’t know or didn’t care, and now she had absconded with Dottie’s husband of 49 years to her own plot.

As far as the logistics of the afterlife went, the location of someone’s grave didn’t affect where they could or couldn’t go in the next plane of existence. But that didn’t matter to Dottie: She was confident that being buried with his second wife, away from the Truman family plot and away from Dottie, was doing nothing to coax him back to his first love and the mother of his children.

And anyway, the Trumans had always been a stuffy bunch, and Dottie hated being buried alone with them for all these years. The least Peter could have done, if he had known he’d be buried with some Boca Raton bimbo named Beatrice (which, of course, he didn’t, but try telling Dottie that), was put Dottie in the ground with her own family.

So after five years of waiting, and waiting, and waiting in the afterlife for her husband to come back to her, she decided to get her childrens’ ever-divided attention. It started with turning their TVs at random times, to random channels, but she was so appalled at what she saw across the channels that she decided that was causing more harm to her sense of the world than good. So she resorted to other poltergeist-inspired chicanery: She would tip over a coatrack (which would be blamed on the dog), turn on lights during the night (which would be blamed on the house’s electrician), explode soda cans (which would be blamed on PepsiCo) and burn food in the oven within minutes of it getting hot (which would be blamed on whoever was cooking). Eventually she decided that Thanksgiving would give her the biggest and best audience, so she went nuts: Shattered a mirror, changed the stereo to her favorite Frank Sinatra tune and blasted it, and even threw the half-cooked turkey out the window before using the grease and drippings in the pan to write on the walls “BURY ME WITH YOUR FATHER. LOVE, MOM.”

Dottie wanted to add “AND MOVE THAT BITCH BEATRICE TO THE PLOT NEXT TO THE BATHROOMS” but ran out of grease.

Unfortunately, now that she was watching Mark and Yvette sit with the cemetery director, that wasn’t quite a possibility. Peter Truman, it turned out, had been buried with his second wife on one side, and an empty plot on the other. And that plot was saved for Beatrice’s son, Tyrone.

Who was far from dying.

And who had moved off the grid, never to be heard from again.

At least, not until Dottie decided she had to pay someone a visit. It was time to introduce someone to Old Blue Eyes, backed by a full orchestra, belting out “Strangers in the Night” at top volume around 3 a.m.

Axiom Thorne: The Crestbalm Fete

It was all my aunt’s idea, sending me in my mother’s wedding dress dyed with indigo I had collected from the riverbank. She proudly presented this plan to us while showing off one of three gowns she had just commissioned from The House of Raheem in Dragon’s Head.

The dress has been stored in her attic since my father had died — Mamma had asked her sister-in-law to take care of it, as we needed the extra closet space for my clothes now that they no longer fit in the little prayer chest at the foot of my bed. My aunt had grumbled and eventually obliged by shoving the dress in a crate. I can only assume that’s where it had spent nearly 12 years when she drew it from her wardrobe. In no way had the the wrinkled mess been hanging there for longer than a couple days.

“You’ve got the same stick-straight boy build as your mother,” she said, lifting the creased fabric up to me. “Just add some beads and use some of those flowers from behind the house to dye it, and it’ll be a whole new dress.”

“That should be fine, thank you,” Mamma said, our eyes locking as I dared her to laugh and she dared me to spit in her sister-in-law’s eye. Neither of us felt confident enough to do either, so we shoved as many scones from the tea tray into our pockets before gathering the dress and bidding my aunt farewell.

The Crestbalm Fete arrived a week later. Ansel arrived at the door in his oldest brother’s best suit, clutching a bouquet of forget-me-nots in his hand. They had gone limp from the heat in the air and the sweat from his palms. As my mother hugged me goodbye, I saw the blueish-purple under her fingernails and remembered that it would likely be another three weeks before they were cleaned from the memory of late nights filled with stinky dye and strained eyesight.

Mamma’s alterations had turned her simple white wedding gown from a heavy bundle of wrinkled satin to an indigo dress so light that it almost floated. The four layers of skirts we removed were now blanketing our beds — a luxurious addition to our tiny boudoirs — and the final one hovered gently on the breeze, tickling my legs as Ansel took my hand in his and led me down the street toward the village square where the annual striped tent had been erected, its walls draped with vines and fragrant flowers.

Gardenia Smote and Louie Berenger met us at the mouth of the tent, inviting us to their table. I knew they liked Ansel and more-or-less tolerated me, but compared to the many others whom Ansel called friends, they were far more tolerable. Louie once threw a rock at the baker’s boy for calling me a slug when we were six, and Gardenia made a fuss over my dress and how she far preferred it to the fuchsia organza gown she had inherited from her sister.

We were hardly the only girls there in a hand-me-down or makeshift dress. In fact, those who had new gowns from the Dragon’s Head fashion houses or even Porfery’s Emporium in town were mocked behind their backs for their extravagance. Who would spend a single gold coin, let along fifty, on a dress for our tiny town’s annual fete? In this way, the Crestbalm Fete every year saw the same dresses, suits and robes swirling around different bodies.

Ansel had just returned to our table with two glasses of sparkling wine when the tent dimmed and the center of the room illuminated to reveal Mayoress Andreu in periwinkle taffeta that glistened against her red tiefling skin. She wasted no time in launching into the speech she likely gave every year.

“In Crestbalm we have a saying, ‘The fete is the future taking flight,'” her voice lilted, almost in song. Her gossamer wings unfolded, glowing in the magical spotlight. “And what a beautiful future, indeed!”

With one pump of her wings, she launched into the air and disappeared with a crack. The tent relit itself, and a band no one had noticed before began playing soft dinner music as waiters delivered platters of chicken, potatoes, carrots, greens, waffles, berries, scones, noodles, spare ribs, grapes, hollandaise-coated asparagus, salmon, quail eggs, and more. Dinner at the fete was traditionally donated, so each table received what their families had worked together to provide. Our table was ladened with Gardenia’s family’s brisket, arugula salad from the Berengers’ garden, corn pancakes cooked and salted butter churned on Ansel’s farm, and Mamma’s signature green tea cakes, and creme d’violete custards that almost matched my gown.

We stuffed ourselves silly, the sauce from the brisket staining our mouths and the green tea cakes crumbling into our laps as we licked the frosting from our fingers. The sparkling wine in our glasses magically replenished, though whether it was at the hand of our wizard mayor or stealth waiters, we weren’t sure and didn’t care to ask.

Doreena Cowl started the dancing by dragging her date to the middle of the floor, and the band took her lead by playing a louder, faster tune. I recognized her pale green dress as the one her sister had worn two years earlier — it was new, then, and those of us still too young to go to the fete had salivated at the notion of wearing something so fancy. Now there were hints of mud stains along the hem, and the left strap kept sliding down Doreena’s shoulder, but it was still as magnificent as the day we first saw it, glittering with the cut glass that encrusted the bodice.

“Pretty, how the light flashes off it,” said Ansel in my ear, and I turned to agree but found myself face-to-face with someone I hadn’t seen in a year.

He hadn’t changed, but the scarf had. When I saw him after my thirteenth birthday — weeks after visiting Hanso Jon in her swamp and almost losing my mother — he had already started creating a new scarf from the magic the stole from others. This one was almost twice as long now as the one hidden under my floorboards from anyone’s eyes and touch but mine. Every time I saw him, it seemed to get longer: Tonight it had four new stripes of burnt sienna, dark mauve, sky blue and light lavender: the same color as Mayoress Andreu’s gown.

“Of course, not as pretty as you,” he said, paternally patting me on the head with his long-fingered hand. “I see young Stephan’s totem came with you tonight, but not my scarf.”

I whipped around, looking for someone, anyone, to be staring at us. In a tent full of 18-year-olds, the grizzled Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes would surely stand out.

“They can’t see us or hear us, my dear,” he smirked. “But if it makes you feel better, we can step outside so I don’t feel like my ass is in your date’s face.”

Sure enough, Ansel was still sitting in his chair, drinking the sparkling wine while emphatically nodding to something Louie was saying. I rose from my place and walked toward the side flap of the tent and into the chilling night air.

“Do you have to appear at every major event of my life?” I asked.

“Only when you don’t bring me along. I see Stephan’s viper fang accompanied you tonight,” the Man with the Colored Scarf and Diamond Shoes tapped the gold totem hanging from my neck — a souvenir from watching Stephan burst into beetles five years before. “I feel dishonored, Axiom. Why not wear my gift, too?”

“It clashed with the dress,” I said dryly.

“Such is the foibles of fashionability,” he sighed, the gravel in his throat rattling ominously. “You’ve probably guessed by now that my gift to you was not given without expectations. I need an apprentice. I can provide the powers and direction, but this body of mine is no longer able to handle as — complicated — of deeds.”

“But I take it mine can?” I asked. In the dark I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel his breath pouring from his mouth and into my face.

“There’s nothing holding you back, Axiom,” he rattled. “The fete means you’ve reached adulthood, independence. Your mother won’t expect you to stay in your little cottage with her any longer.”

“Ansel wants me to marry him,” I blurted.

“You and I both know that’s not true,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf scoffed. “He asked you to the fete; he didn’t propose. Don’t lie to me, Axiom. I always know when you are, and it makes me angry.”

The breath in my face was suddenly cool compared to the heat building around my neck. At first I thought it might be anger, but soon I felt a searing pain against my skin. Reflexively I snatched the viper fang from around my neck and tore it away. My hand stung with the burn even after I had tossed the necklace away into the grass.

“Now,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf said, his words deliberate. “I don’t want to ruin your evening even further. Tonight you should go and dance with your date, and tomorrow I will leave you a little reminder that great things are expected of you.”

And with that, I was alone.

I should have been more incensed that no one had noticed I was gone, but it was hard to feel anything but numb the rest of the night. Every bounce of the light off of a glittery shoe made me wonder if the Man with the Colorful Scarf had returned, and I started seeking out dresses and robes that matched the new stripes on his scarf, paranoid that I might be dancing beside one of his newest victims. Mayoress Andreu was nowhere to be found the rest of the evening.

To combat the cottonmouth feeling, I drank as much sparkling wine as I could — it peppered my mouth and reminded me that I was still alive, still 18, and still expected to have a good time.

When Ansel took me home, his fingers fidgeting between mine.

“I hope you had fun,” he said. “I’m not sure you did.”

“It was a wonderful night. I think I just drank too much sparkling wine, is all.” The words drunkenly tripped out of my mouth.

“Can I kiss you goodnight?” He asked, and suddenly every worry I’d had all evening melted away as I nodded and he took me in his arms.

Everything I had read in books about first kisses pointed to a spark that ignited in your chest, or a hook that pulled you up from your belly. I kept waiting for one of those things to happen — to assure me that this was what I wanted, what I’d been waiting for — but all I felt was warm, wet human lips against mine.

I closed my eyes, thinking maybe that was the issue. It changed nothing at first, and then it became the stuff of nightmares as my mind turned to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes, snarling on the inside of my eyelids.

Ansel pulled away gently, and I turned to open my front door. The curtain in the side window shifted just slightly, and I knew my mother was still awake.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Ansel,” I said.

“Tomorrow, Axiom,” he nodded, absentmindedly scratching his bottom lip with his thumb.

Mamma was up, but the lights were off, and I allowed her the pleasure of thinking she had gotten away with watching us from the window by running right past the tiny parlor and up the stairs to my bedroom. Hiking my dress up to my waist, I dropped to my knees next to my bed and started scratching the wood floor for the loose board. A moment later, I had found it.

There it was, the striped scarf. And on the end of it, a new stripe — tiny, barely a hem: Aquamarine, like Ansel’s eyes.

It wasn’t the only new stripe, either. One the color of a blueberry stain; another mahogany. In the years I had left the scarf under my bed, another two feet of material had grown on it, capturing the colors of the magic I had subconsciously stolen from people by accidentally brushing against them in the market or grazing their hand when giving them change or loaning them a quill.

My fingers caressed the tiny aquamarine strip at the end of it. I think I fell asleep praying that it wouldn’t get bigger, even though I knew that Ansel likely had no more magic to give.

The next morning I awoke, suffocating under the heavy satin fabric from Mamma’s wedding dress. The floorboards looked undisturbed, and I wondered whether I had put them back myself the night before — it was hard to recall everything I did with adrenaline and sparkling wine coursing through my veins. As I lifted myself out of bed, a headache pressing behind my eyes, the sun caught a glimmer of something on my bedside table: A golden viper fang on a chain.

True News reports: Beyoncé’s buffoon buys mummy

Once they had delivered the True News inkjet-printed onto fluorescent orange paper into every mailbox along Crystal Gorge Drive, Paul and Vic returned to the black Beetle parked in the cul-de-sac. Rhiannon had beat them there and leaned against the side, picking at the leftover spots of polish on her fingernails as if playing a scratch-off lottery ticket.

“All good, Rhi-Rhi?”

“A triumph, Vicky,” she said, flicking holographic paint chips onto the pavement. “Newsletters in every mailbox on Kinder Way, Bordello Avenue and Greeley Court. And now, let’s feast.”

The summer sun had had no problem turning the car into a hothouse, and Paul regretted wearing shorts as he sat on the burning leather seat and felt his skin toast against it.

“Lunch at Paul’s?” Rhiannon asked as she put the car in drive. She didn’t wait for an answer before peeling away from the curb and toward the main road.

This was how summer days were now that Paul had found Vic and Rhiannon. He didn’t believe a word of what they dished out into the neighborhoods — all this claptrap about three vampires living in Paul Rudd’s basement, the werewolf spotted on Paul Giamatti’s lawn, the succubus lounging on a float in the middle of Taylor Swift’s pool — but spreading obvious lies was worth finally having two friends who actually seemed to like seeing him every day. And to them, it was all very real.

“I’m digging into a story that Nicolas Cage was Rudolph Valentino’s familiar before being turned into a vampire himself,” Vic announced, like he was reporting on sewer testing or a city council meeting. “Might be ready to run for next week’s edition.”

Paul knew better than to bring up that Valentino, silent film’s original Latin Lover, had died at age 31 from an infection — hardly the mysterious vampiric ending that True News prided itself in publishing. But to his surprise, Rhiannon took the lead in bursting Vic’s bubble.

“You’ve seen the same photos of Cage as I have, and you know that if anything, Valentino was his familiar. The man’s been alive since the mid-1800s, at least.”

They pulled up to the ranch house that Paul lived in with his parents and sister, Joy Lee. To his dismay, the garage door was already open, and his mom was sweeping out the floor. Paul hated coming home to find his mother doing housework: It made him feel bad for leaving to deposit buffoonery in upper-middle-class mailboxes.

“Hi, Mrs. Lim,” Rhiannon said, getting out of the car.

“Beautiful day out, isn’t it?” Paul’s mom said. “So, what’s the poop?”

Paul’s face went pink. His mother had been born in San Francisco on August 5, 1973, but talked like she was in her prime during the early 1940s. But it wasn’t her WWII-era slang that made him nervous: It was any time Rhiannon and Vic had an opportunity to tell her what exactly the three of them were doing to pass time on the summer days.

“We’re hungry,” he blurted before either of his friends could answer.

“Well, Joy Lee’s inside. She’s been experimenting in the kitchen again, so you’ve been warned.”

“Mrs. Lim, I’m so hungry I could eat Frankenstein’s leg. No fear here,” Rhiannon joked as Paul pulled them inside.

Joy Lee had definitely been experimenting. A thin veil of smoke draped above the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of cooking oil and fried dough. Last week she had almost burned the house down making a blueberry tart. Today she’d been trying to tackle various deep-fried snacks.

“Potstickers coming to the pass!” She yelled, practicing for her self-determined destiny on Hell’s Kitchen. “Hope you’re all hungry — and don’t mind some slightly-burnt edges. The oil got a little hot.”

“Smells great,” Vic said as they each slid into a wicker dining chair at the kitchen table.

Vic held a bottle of Purell in his outstretched hand, and Paul gratefully accepted a squirt. Rubbing his hands briskly, he was reminded of how many paper cuts he’d gotten folding the pamphlets— by the time his hands were dry, his eyes weren’t.

Joy Lee brought a tray out bearing potstickers, egg rolls and what were probably supposed to be jalapeño poppers, though their cream cheese filling had started leaking out the sides.

“I heard Jay-Z bought the mummy that they just found in that excavated pyramid,” Rhiannon said, spearing a potsticker on a single chopstick. Paul watched as it fell apart halfway to her plate, spilling searing chicken filling across the table.

“Think I heard that, too,” Vic said. “Makes sense, really, seeing as he’s married to Beyoncé.”

Joy Lee perked up at the sound of her idol’s name.

“What’s Beyoncé got to do with a mummy?”

“Great egg rolls, Joy,” Paul said loudly, hoping to turn her 13-year-old brain back to her number-one passion. “Perfectly crispy and not too greasy,.”

“Beyoncé’s an immortal Egyptian goddess in human form,” Rhiannon said matter-of-factly. “The mummy’s probably a long-lost lover. And with Jay still needing to make things right after that Rachel Ray nonsense…”

“…Rachel Roy,” Vic corrected her.

“Right, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the last mummy they buy,” Rhiannon finished. “How’s this for a headline, Vic? ‘Beyoncé’s buffoon brings back Biblical-age boy-toy to beg forgiveness for bad behavior.'”

Vic chewed the idea along with a potsticker while Joy Lee laughed. Paul couldn’t taste anything as he waited to see how these two storms — the believers and the uninitiated — would collide.

“Sounds like a Bossip headline,” Joy Lee said. “You should write for them!”

The jalapeño flavor came back to Paul’s mouth. Rhiannon looked flattered.

“Thanks, but I prefer the real news,” she shrugged. “Say, kid, you haven’t read anything in your Teen Vogues about Harry Styles’ fairy circle, have you?”

“That’s an awfully homophobic thing to say,” Joy Lee said, taken-aback. As she turned back toward the kitchen, she looked at Paul with distinct disappointment that he could find friendship with someone that close-minded.

“She means real fairies,” Vic said. “Paul, haven’t you shared the True News lexicon with your sister?”

Paul’s face got hot for the second time, and it wasn’t because of the jalapeño now sizzling down his throat.

“True News?” Joy Lee asked, returning to the table.

“We run a paper,” Vic said. “True News: All the things the normies don’t want you to know. This week we covered the amazons in Gwendolyn Christie’s family tree, Hayley Williams’ secret past as a wood nymph, and how you can see a pixie reflected in the glass in Stanley Tucci’s latest cocktail video.”

“Sounds cool,” Joy Lee shrugged. “Let me know if you ever want me to introduce you to the phoenix our grandfather brought from Hong Kong in a shoebox. Grandpa worked on movie sets back in the day. Got the bird as a gift from Bruce Lee after finishing Thunderstorm.”

Rhiannon almost choked on an egg roll as she and Vic turned to look at Paul in disbelief that he hid this from them. He buried his face in his hands as a birdsong trickled from the living room.

Return to the drive-in: A quarantine story of new hope

He was just settling in to the nightly news something sparked in the corner of Frank Goberwitz’s right eye. The sun was coming up again, but that couldn’t be right: It had finally just set for the day.

It couldn’t possibly be the sun, Frank decided. He rolled his wheelchair to the glass to get a better look and saw a white beam of light stretched across the empty lot next door, illuminating the giant white wall that usually did nothing but block the site of the traffic on North Avenue. “Welcome to the Cascade Drive-In” the wall now read, and as it came into focus, a cacophony of horns below applauded it. Tipping his head forward, he saw that at least a hundred cars were now parked on the crumbling asphalt.

Frank resisted the urge to harrumph his way back to the TV and instead slid the door open and rolled out onto the balcony. It was even louder out here, with the sound of motors and laughter wafting upward on a perfume cloud of popcorn and exhaust fumes.

Three years ago when he had moved into the Sunrise Hills Retirement Complex, he had been guaranteed that the drive-in next door had been closed and purchased by a golf course developer. That sounded fine by him: He didn’t play anymore, but he enjoyed hearing the clinks and pops of the clubs hitting the ball. Being 14 floors up meant it was unlikely for a whiffed shot to end up in his soup, but he would still enjoy the greenery below.

Except the golf course was still not built. The lot remained, as did the abandoned drive-in screen, which loomed like a ghostly monolith just halfway out of his sight line when he sat in his usual spot in the living room. Well, he thought, at least it’s still quiet.

“Ladies and gentleman,” a loudspeaker blared from the back of the lot. Frank jumped at the sound. “After fifteen years, we are glad to be back! Welcome one and all to the Cascade Drive-In Theater, and thank you for your patronage! Are you ready for a show?!”

The car horns blared again. Frank looked over to see Marjorie, his chatterbox next-door-neighbor, come out on her own porch. She clutched a cat in her arms, and Frank sneered at it, knowing that it was the source of the never-ceasing scratching sounds coming from her side of the wall they shared.

“What a night!” she said. “Isn’t it exciting?”

Frank grimaced. There was a reason he liked the last three months of quarantine: it meant not having to respond to niceties from people he didn’t know — or care to know, for that matter.

The cars continued to roll into the lot below as the loudspeaker shouted directions.

“Make sure your radios are set to Station 727.91 AM so you can hear the sound of the picture, though I’m sure many of you could recite it from heart. If you’re hungry, turn your hazards on, and one of our staff will come by with the concessions cart so you can make your selections. They’ll leave your order on your car hood — please remember to let them get six feet away before you exit your vehicle to retrieve it. Snacks in the time of quarantine, am I right, folks!?”

A couple car horns guffawed as Frank saw dozens of red lights start to flash below. Elaborately decorated bicycle rickshaws deployed from the back of the lot, zooming to each car that had its hazard lights ablaze.

“Wonder what the movie is?” Marjorie asked, more to her cat than Frank. He saw her slip inside her house and emerge quickly, the cat replaced by a small battery-operated radio. “I hope it’s one of those John Wick pictures. I love those, don’t you? The fight scenes are so good, and the dog is so cute. And Keanu Reeves is so handsome!”

Frank didn’t know who the hell John Wick was, possibly because he hadn’t seen a movie in some time that wasn’t edited for public consumption on cable. The quarantine had caught him with a hatred for modern technology, which meant he was at the mercy of the network schedulers — possibly another reason he had devolved into the crotchety old bastard that looked back at him from his bathroom mirror. While the rest of the world still zoomed around in its cars and video chatted with family around the world from their pristine kitchens, Frank had developed intimate friendships with Alex Trebeck and Pat Sajack as he waited for one of the nurses to drop off his tray of daily meals. His daughter, Cindy, lived across the country and used to call daily, but after a month of having to listen to his pissing and moaning, she had started only calling on Sunday afternoons. He didn’t mind. Pretending to be happy was exhausting.

Marjorie’s deck chair clattered closer to the railing, and Frank saw her hop up on top of it and prop her chin on her folded arms that rested on the balcony railing. Her feet dangled inches from the ground, one of her house slippers barely holding on.

“What a nice surprise,” she said into the evening breeze. “The first night in a week that it isn’t raining, and we get a movie!” She turned to look at Frank, and the light from her apartment sparkled in her eyes. “It makes me feel closer to humanity, somehow, even though I know they’re all down there. We’re all experiencing something at the same time, together, like a real community.”

“Sure,” chuffed Frank, who backed off the porch into his house. The news anchors were finishing their report about how quarantine had been extended for another two weeks: No gatherings of more than 10 people in an enclosed space. No bars or restaurants open for the public. No visits to senior centers unless you’re a health care provider.

Frank sighed as he turned off the TV and the side table lamp before pivoting his chair toward the bedroom door. Outside, he heard Marjorie’s tinny radio screech with the 20th Century Fox theme, followed by an orchestral explosion that blast his thoughts back to 1977.

He was 39. Cindy was 10 and desperate to see the new movie that had all the kids at school talking. Frank’s wife — God rest her soul — thought it would be too violent. “Wars” was right there in the title, after all.

The Addison Multiplex Movie Theater was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and he took his daughter’s hand as they slid into the fourth row from the back just in time for the show to start. The lights dimmed, the 20th Century Fox searchlights lit up the screen, and then everything went black. John Williams’ fanfare sent a wave of adrenaline down his spine as yellow words floated up the screen.

That same yellow scroll now lit up Frank’s entire living room as it towered three stories high across the lot. Cars blared their horns in excitement. Marjorie applauded from her perch. And Frank shot out onto his balcony in time to see that it was time for Princess Leia to race home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that could save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

Character: Deirdre St. Oleander

I talked to my first corpse when I was six.

There was a tramp who died in the gutter outside Miss Morton’s Millenary, where my mother sent me to stitch the tiny baby’s breath flowers along each hat’s brim. Tiny fingers are good for that work, and my vision was sharp enough to see even in the dim candlelight once the winter days grew shorter.

The tramp liked to say good morning to every lady who passed, sweeping his floppy hat off with a bow and exposing a shiny bald pate. Stitches ran across it like railroad tracks, like someone had once opened his head up, poked around in his brain, and closed it up hoping no one would notice.

Except I noticed.

When the tramp died, everyone thought he was sleeping. Even I thought he was just napping in the gutter when he suddenly stood up, swept his floppy hat off his head and bowed to me.

“Good morning, young miss,” he said like he always did, but this time it sounded like it was coming from underwater — gurgling, distant. I curtsied like my mother taught me. Every person is a person, especially those down on their luck, she would say.

“Tell me, do you know which way to the railroad station?” The tramp asked. “I seem to have forgotten.”

I pointed in the direction, and he walked off. It was then that I knew something was wrong. First off, his limp was gone, and he glided tall as a tree through the crowd. Second, while I watched him walk away, I also saw that he was still lying in the gutter.

Miss Morton — really Mrs. Debonay Tristan Morton, for as many times as she had been married at that time — came outside and shrieked. She never liked the tramp because she said he scared away her customers. While in life he never seemed to deter anyone from entering her shop, in death he certainly was getting his revenge.

The Street Sweepers came to get his body, and Miss Morton sent me home. While I want to believe it was because she felt bad that I, a wee six-year-old, had encountered death on her doorstep, I have a hard time believing a woman who employees a child that young for pennies a day had any concern for my well-being and was more worried that I had somehow contracted fleas or lice while standing so close to the body. For good measure, I hugged her around the waist before darting down the street back to my mother.

When I told her what had happened, she didn’t seem surprised. In fact, she seemed rather pleased.

“I knew you’d have it, DeeDee, but I didn’t think it would come this soon,” she crowed.

“Have what, Ma?”

“Your grandma had it, too. It skips generations, see. I was always happy I didn’t have it — they scare me, see — but if you’ve got it…sweetest, we’re out of the soup! You’ll never have to go back to Miss Morton’s again! We’ll have cake for breakfast, and you’ll have a trunk full of pretty clothes!”

Something was definitely amiss, as my mother was never one to fantasize. If the average person in our town was down-to-Earth, she was a layer of gravel under the cobblestones.

She was right, though. I never went back to Miss Morton’s Millenary, and by the end of that year I not only had a trunk of new dresses, but we had a whole new house where she and I had separate rooms, and a kindly woman cooked and cleaned for us while my mother toured me around to the biggest houses and theaters in the city. My name was plastered on posters pasted to theater windows and city squares — not DeeDee Sous, but Deirdre St. Oleander, Child Necromancer and Medium.

Butlers opened doors for me with a bow and led me into ornate parlors centered around ornate caskets surrounded by ornate people with top hats and Spanish fans. Audiences stood on their feet and applauded just when they caught site of me walking onstage. And then everyone would grow silent, and I would have to approach it: The body. Marble-like skin sagging over loose muscle. Crepe-like eyelids draped over visionless pupils.

Most of them didn’t notice the packed house staring at them when their spirit sat up to talk to me. Usually they were too self-involved, telling me who they never got to say goodbye to, or who they wanted to curse now that they had seen the afterlife. There was an older gentleman with a gear permanently implanted over his left eye who sat up, looked straight at his colleague in a high-backed leather chair, and spat on him. Of course, the colleague neither saw nor felt any of this. And it wasn’t my job to tell him — instead, I had to whisper it to the hostess of the wake, who could barely contain her excitement as she giddily skipped away to tell her friend, who presumably told her husband, who presumably passed it on to his co-worker…

When I turned 12, my mother and I moved into an even bigger home. This house had four servants, and still it was just the two of us. Then she met Mr. Theobald Dorchester, a made-up name if I ever heard of one, who charmed her into bankruptcy before he took off on a fishing boat, never to be seen again.

I was 14, then, and entering my gawky stage. I was no longer the cute child who could talk to the dead, and I was not yet a woman of any consequential properties, apart from my necromancy talent. Like the perpetual adolescent it is, the world had moved on from its obsession with the dead and taken up a new interest in the never-living as scientists built robots and steam-machines capable of traversing the universe. Who needs restless spirits when you can fly to the moon and back?

The bank took our house, so we moved into an old theater that used to host me every month. The stage manager had an apartment upstairs that he let us stay in while he worked nights at an underground tavern my mother said I was too young to know about. But 14-year-old girls are never too young to know something, and never too fearful to go looking for the truth, which is how I found The Borgnine Club.

I followed the stage manager, Fritz, there almost every Tuesday night because that was the night my mother cleaned The Inventor’s workshop. From behind dusty curtains I would watch the shows being performed, and the patrons who paid for admission. If there wasn’t a woman peeling off her bloomers on stage, there was a juggler or a comedian egging on the crowd. Waitresses drifted like smoke between the tables, dressed only in their corsets and garters. All clients were men, and each one of them was required to wear the same black top hat with a purple band around its middle. The waitresses would slip notes into the band from other patrons so that no one had to be seen fraternizing with each other, even though they all had secrets to share.

One night, as a bellydancer performed a sort of slapstick routine, there was a different hat that stood out from the sea of black stovepipes. It was a broad-brimmed lady’s hat, bright pink and edged with white baby’s breath. I watched the woman’s head bob in time to the piano player’s music and tip back as she laughed at the comedic performance, revealing an older, luminous visage. Her lips were painted black cherry, and her eyes crinkled as she guffawed. I was instantly mesmerized.

“That’s what this world is missing!” She crowed. “Enough of this masturbatory, self-important exploration — we want deprave dramatics! Give me a show magician or a fortune telling prodigy any day over these humdrum machines these men roll out to impress us. It’s all about the theater of it all!”

She had the attention of the whole club now. A few men coughed their indignation into linen handkerchiefs, but most of her fellow club members were enthralled.

“I once saw a little girl talk to my best friend’s sister three days after the poor woman died. Repeated stuff that even my best friend didn’t know, but I’ll tell you — that little darling was the real deal. Deborah something, I think her name was. Little spitfire, but she disappeared right after that. Probably grew up, or some nonsense like that.”

For the rest of the evening, my brain grew warm with the friction of thought grinding against hope. The woman’s party didn’t leave until 2 a.m., but I was awake and waiting outside the door.

“Ma’am,” I called after the pink hat in the crowd. She didn’t turn around, so I darted after her. “Ma’am, you mentioned me! You were friends with Mrs. Squire.”

At Mrs. Squire’s name, the pink hat turned, and I came face-to-face with the black cherry lips.

“Mrs. Squire?” The woman asked. “Well, yes, but how do you—”

“I’m Deirdre St. Oleander,” I said quickly, aware that her attention was worth more money than I had in my pockets, and I couldn’t afford to hold it for too long. “I was the little girl. I talked to Mrs. Squire’s sister, Adele.”

The woman’s face cracked open, almost as pink as her hat. She reeked of the hard liquor they sold in different shaped glasses inside the Borgnine Club.

“Why Miss St. Oleander,” she said. “Boys, this is the young necromancer I mentioned. You’re certainly growing into a lady. Not quite there yet, but soon, I imagine!”

My cheeks burned with the same embarrassment that came when my mother fretted over how we had little money and even less time before I’d need a proper corset and girdle for under my cotton shift dresses.

“Do you have any work for me?” I asked, my face now matching the woman’s hot pink hat. “Any dead people you want to talk to? Freshly dead, of course.”

The woman roared with the same laughter that echoed off the beams of the Borgnine.

“My sweet, not tonight, but give me a day and I’ll have ridden one of these gorgeous men to their death,” she said, squeezing the arm of the tall many next to her. “But if you were to put on a show, I would buy out the theater. I haven’t had as much schadenfreude as I had when you announced how Lydia Squire’s sister once made a pass at me during their parent’s Winter Ball. Ooh, how Lydia steamed — I didn’t hear from her again, and good riddance is all I can say about that.”

The men around her chortled.

“Next Saturday,” I blurted. “The Old Mill Theater. Eight o’clock.”

“Noted,” she said, impressed. “Thank you, Miss St. Oleander. I look forward to a spectacle,”

The week passed like a blur, and so did the show, but with a giant pink splotch in the middle of the muddled memory. The woman surely had filled the theater with her friends, and she made sure to sit front and center as I talked to a baker we had borrowed from the morgue (he asked that his recipe for hot crossed buns be shared only with his middle son, and no one else); an inventor who had, just that day, blown himself up trying to get to Mars (he wanted to know where his legs had gone); and, could it be? Miss Morton herself, bloated with booze and clucking about this year’s dismal styles for ladies’ headwear. I relayed her ten-minute rant about fascinators to the audience, expanding just a little on the horrors of taxidermy birds perching atop any woman’s head.

After the show, the woman came backstage to thank me personally for a much-needed evening.

“It was spectacular,” she said. “Just a little advice — add some more theatrics next time. You have a gift: Now give it a little sparkle.”

Luckily, I was the kind of teenager who loved sparkle. A few late nights at the Borgnine Club sponsored by the woman in the pink hat, and we had enough money to buy me a proper corset and underthings, plus a scandalously short dress that made my mother cross herself before sitting down to count the night’s takings. By the time I was 15, we had moved out of the stage manager’s apartment and taken up residency next door. It was a modest home, but it was ours.

When I was 16, my mother started coughing up blood and coal dust. It was all those years cleaning for The Inventor, I knew. Medicine was expensive and not guaranteed to work, but I kept adding more theatrics to my shows. When the dead bodies had nothing interesting to say — they wondered the time, or asked for directions to the tavern — I would embellish just enough so the audience was eating out of my one hand and filling the other with paper bills.

I was 17 when a man dressed in a brown leather coat lied flat on the slab before me. His face was half gone, scraped away by the road as a steam-powered carriage dragged him half a mile before the driver noticed. When his spirit sat up, it did nothing but scream.

Once in a while we got screamers. At 8, I ran off the stage with my hands over my ears because of the wailing banshee the coroners had dropped off for our show. But this man’s yells were nothing like I had heard before. They sounded like they were coming up from his toes and amplifying through the gaping hole in the side of his face.

“Sorry, folks,” I tried to say over the screams. “He’s a little hard to understand. Had a bit much to drink, I’m afraid, and it appears he’s woken up from the dead still drunk! The man just made a pass at me.” I clutched my chest and looked at the screaming soul, feigning scandal.

Most of the audience laughed, but not the man at the table in the front row. He glowered at me, and it felt like the bones in my corset had suddenly twisted even tighter.

“Sir, you have to say it slower and quieter,” I said to the man in the brown coat. He turned to look at me and continued screaming, his facial wounds now inches from my face. My throat closed to keep from vomiting.

“He’s not drunk,” said a voice. It was the man in the front row. “He’s a Brother.”

I should have known from his brown coat and coarse black boots, and how he had been riding in the back of a steam-powered carriage, instead of up with the driver. This man wasn’t some drunk who got tangled up and dragged a half mile. He was a Brother of the Order — a devout follower who abstained from sex, alcohol, modern mechanics, and, most importantly, speech.

It all felt like a cruel joke, and I was punchline. A hush fell over the audience, and the woman in the pink hat looked at me like I had betrayed her.

“Miss Deirdre,” she said, standing soberly. “I do believe you’ve been caught in a lie.”

“But I—”

“And it makes one wonder,” she said even louder, “how many times before you’ve caught us in your lies.”

The audience was on its feet now, either knocking back the last of their drink or throwing their empty glasses at the foot of the stage. The man in the front row stood up, shook his head, and walked out as silent as the Brother.

That was the last time I saw the woman in the pink hat. I performed only once more at the Borgnine Club before they canceled my other appearances, and soon word got around town that I was a fraud, just because I gave the people what they wanted: Not the dead talking, but the dead singing.

I’m not a fraud. I can talk to the dead.

I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?

Short Story: Would You Like To See Magic? Would You Like To Do Magic?

Oh, mamma, I didn’t mean to do it I didn’t mean to make a deal with the man in the scarf and diamond shoes at the end of the block but OK yes you told me not to talk to him, and I didn’t think you meant not to be polite you’re always saying I should be polite so when he said Hello I thought I should say Hello back and then he said he liked my hat and I said I liked his scarf and the next thing I knew it felt like that long blue and white scarf was wrapping around my wrist and pulling me into the alley where he lives and then he handed me a cup of tea from a kettle over the trashcan fire and it tasted so good, mamma. No, not as good as yours, of course, but so good, like the way marshmallows smell when being burned over a fire of dry leaves on a cool October night, the night that Ansolo wrapped me in his coat and told me he would always love me no matter what no matter if the sun goes black and the skies turn solid.

And that’s when the man said Axiom Would You Like To See Magic and the flames in the trash can turned purple, not like your dress purple, but like the flowers on the lavender bush outside, like the color I’m always trying to get right with my paints but never do because I add too much white or too much blue or the green accidentally runs into it. They were so beautiful, mamma, and they spit vibrant silver sparks unlike any fire I’ve ever seen before, and then he asked Would You Like To Do Magic and what color I’d like to turn the flames next, and I thought of one, and they turned that turquoise shade that only silk can hold.

I asked him what else he could do and he took my hand in his and put a thumb to that scar on the back of it from when I fought Brandlee on the playground when she was making fun of Tobi, the new half-orc in our class, and suddenly it disappeared and I didn’t have the crescent moon of her nails etched on the skin anymore and, mamma, it felt so good, like someone had peeled a layer of pain off my flesh and I could stretch and dance and breathe again. And I thought Ansolo, lying in that bed, waiting for me to come and read to him or paint by the window while we talked or, at least, while I talked as he can’t really talk much without tiring himself out and coughing and falling asleep now that the Sickness has reached his lungs and I asked the man if he would come with me to see Ansolo so he could heal him and the man just laughed and flung his scarf over his shoulder and said I didn’t need him to come with if I learned how to heal Ansolo myself.

Mamma, I know I shouldn’t have I know that I know you said not to enter into deals with strangers, let alone the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, but he said it would be easy and that all I’d need to do was shake his hand and I’d have the power to heal Ansolo and turn fire purple and turquoise and do so many other things like vanquish evil so elves like Brandlee would never make fun of half-orcs like Tobi and I don’t know how he knew all of that but his diamond shoes were so shiny and he was so nice and the tea tasted so good and I went to Ansolo’s house feeling like the man was still squeezing my hand like I was walking hand-in-hand with a phantom and my arms and chest and legs tingled in anticipation of knowing that I could cure Ansolo now and make him better and we could finally get out of this little town and have the adventures he promised me while wrapping me in his coat that autumn night.

And it worked! It worked, mamma, and once I had taken Ansolo’s hand he stopped coughing and his legs started to twitch under the blanket and he actually swung them over the side and stood up and walked to the window, right past the easel I had been painting at and looked out at the trees like he was getting up from a good night’s sleep instead of months of slow death as his body gave up on him. And then he looked at me and asked me Who Are You.

I’m Axiom Your Wife I told him and I went to stand with him at the window and take his hand and remind him how he would hold me just so like our bodies were designed to fit together and he pulled away and looked at me like I always looked at the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, that is to say Go Away I Don’t Know You I Don’t Trust You I Don’t Want To Talk To You, and my heart burst out of my chest and dropped to the floor with a thud as I saw in his eyes that he didn’t know who I was and that my easel by the window had disappeared and so had the paper flowers and birds I had hung from string over his bed and so had the tiny portrait of us at the festival last summer and so had the ring he wore around his finger to tell everyone that he was mine that I was his that we were lassoed together with gold bonds that couldn’t be severed.

And I realized as I twisted my own gold ring around my finger, holding tight to it so it wouldn’t disappear too, that he didn’t know me that he didn’t remember me that to him that night by the bonfire with the marshmallows and the moon hadn’t happened or at least hadn’t included me and I saw over his shoulder the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes sneer at me as he held something aloft that sparkled in the morning sun and it was Ansolo’s ring and memory of me. I was so distracted by the sight that I didn’t notice that Ansolo was about to walk right into me then walked right through me like I no longer existed in his world and I wondered, mamma, if I didn’t exist for him if he didn’t exist for me either, but I know that’s not true, mamma, because I still had the ring on my finger and I still could smell his skin and hear his laugh and remember when we first met as kids on the bank of the creek by our house where we caught gillyfish in our bare hands until the backs of our necks were red with sunburn. Why, mamma? Why did the man with the scarf and diamond shoes take me from Ansolo, but not Ansolo from me?

It’s agony, mamma, like Ansolo took a part out of his heart and I took a part out of mine and we swapped them, like trading out two identically shaped but differently colored puzzle pieces except now he’s handed my piece back and has walked away perfectly whole, somehow, while I have this extra piece of me that was once part of him jammed inside of me reminding me that he once loved me but doesn’t even know me anymore and I’ll always love him but will never be able to get him back.

Why are you looking at me like that, mamma? What do you mean you don’t remember Ansolo?

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.

Short story: “David”

My stomach hit the sidewalk seconds before my coffee did. I had built up in my head that he was in a European prison where I’d never see him again — not standing outside the Starbucks next to where I worked and hardly thought of him at all except once or twice an hour when I’d create in my head my very reaction to seeing him again after all this time.

“Kid! Hey, kid!” I’d call out.

And then I’d walk away and wait for him to chase me. Which of course he would — this was my fantasy, and he did what I wanted.

But as I stared at him in the flesh, I dropped my coffee and felt it scald my skin through my tights. Suddenly an inside joke from our past didn’t seem as appropriate as a solid “Fuck you,” but my mouth couldn’t form the words. All it could do was slam shut as I hoped he hadn’t seen me and my brown-splattered nylons. The same ones he thought I had worn over on a 20-degree March night with the purpose of seducing him (I had), despite how I insisted that I had actually come from happy hour (I hadn’t, unless drinking two glasses of whiskey alone on my couch counted).

“Well hello,” he said with a smile — the kind that had convinced me six months before to get out of the cab one stop early and have a one night stand that lasted two months.

“Hi,” was the only syllable my mouth could form during its battle against my brain, which was still figuring out what it wanted to say as it also debated whether to pick up the fallen coffee cup, hook it with my toe so it wouldn’t blow away or ignore it all together.

“Surprised to see me?”

Of course the fucker was going to make it about him. He always did — asking me if he was my best friend, playing his favorite clips from some show I couldn’t stand, dropping names I didn’t recognize as if the people in his life were celebrities, not just the kind who invited their defense attorneys to family barbecues.

I used to use his comments about his pending departure as a thermometer when I wanted to know how he felt about our relationship: When it was good, he might not have to leave after all. When he was bored or annoyed, moving day suddenly moved up. And when he finally did leave, he made sure not to tell me until a single message lit up my phone after a week of radio silence: “Ah! Last week in Chicago. You were a highlight of my year.” Then, nothing.

He had been the first boy to make me cry. Not even my first yearlong relationship’s disintegration had done that. It had taken me months to stop thinking that six blocks west, two blocks north of my apartment was his neighborhood.

And now he stood on my sidewalk near my office asking me whether I was surprised to see him. For the next year I’d have to turn this corner every day and remember he had been there — one of the few places he hadn’t defiled during the two months of mindfuckery — and it was like he had returned from across the Atlantic just because he had missed a spot.

Shock decayed into chagrin.

“‘Surprised’ isn’t the term I’d use,” I said, hoping the rest of my mind would get on the same anger page. Unfortunately, part of my brain was remembering the feeling of his lips brushing just under my jaw bone while the other part heard his soft, warm laughter in my ear.

“You look great,” he said, surveying the body that had gotten sleeker, stronger and tougher from exercise that had done everything but sweat him out of my system.

“Thanks,” I said, wishing I was the kind of person who could nonchalantly add “I know.”

“So I’m in town for a while staying at my old place,” he said. “Are you still in the area?”

The fact I had never told him where I lived remained one of the few victories I had over him. Then again, he had worked for the county: A simple search, if he had been so inclined, would have given him my address, tax code and social security number.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you know where I live,” he said, and before I knew what was happening, he had kissed my cheek and walked down my street toward my bridge that I crossed every morning. Except now it was the street he walked down after kissing me on the cheek, and the bridge he crossed on his way to his neighborhood.

I didn’t tell any of my friends I had seen him. I just experienced the deja vu of receiving a parboiled invitation that ended with “or something,” which meant adding “Shave legs, change underwear, drink two glasses of whiskey” to the list of things I had to do before leaving my house at 7:53 so I could arrive at 8:05 on the dot, be pulled by my scarf into the house and pressed up against the wall as his hands pushed tugged teasingly at my collar.

The Corvette button he gave me and that I still wore (“I don’t care who gave it to me, I just really like it,” I would spit at friends’ raised eyebrows) made a clatter on the floor when my coat landed at my feet. For the third time, I abandoned my gray boots five feet apart in the hallway as I walked in like it was my apartment, not his. And I lost yet another pair of tights to his fingers as they grappled to pull them down while pushing me back onto the dining table where I once left a pair of earrings so he’d feel obligated to invite me back.

The apartment still smelled of cinnamon tea and vanilla wax. His breath still tasted of red wine and lies. And there was still a watermark on the ceiling that looked like the Virgin Mary from some angles and a mushroom cloud from others. That image of mass murder and destruction was the last thing I saw before closing my eyes in a mix of anger and ecstasy, if there was even a difference between the two. They both made me scream and arch my back.

He buttoned his jeans and padded into the kitchen to pour cabernet savignon into two white wine glasses. I got off the table and straightened my skirt, leaving the punctured tights in a ball on the chair. His desk looked the same as always with the laptop open to film editing software and an external hard-drive blinking lazily next to it.

“Let me show you what I’m working on,” he said, handing me a glass and sitting down on the cheap task chair.

I hated that chair. One night he had pulled me over while we watched a clip of a show he had played for me at least five times before, and my quads burned from holding most of my weight off his leg. I feared our equally strong personalities were two heavy for the chair’s flimsy plastic spindle.

Tonight I stood behind him, my chin pinning my hand to the top of his head where it memorized the texture of his curls. I remembered how the sun turned his tarnished gold hair silver. There must be a lot more sun in London than I thought.

And there it was, that same clip he had shown me before. When I had finally seen the show it was from months after his departure, I had skipped the rest of the episode.

“I have this insane idea,” he said when it ended, spinning around in the chair and wrapping his hands around my waist. “Stay over,” he whispered to my belly button.

He had said the same thing before. I had said I had meetings the next day. Tonight I just sipped my wine to buy time to decide on a response. The glass hid my smirk, but I hoped that just this once the cabernet wouldn’t dye my lips purple.

Still unsure of how I wanted to answer, I twisted out of his grasp and went to the window to make sure the 160-year-old city cathedral hadn’t changed in the months since I had seen it from this 10-story perspective. Nope, still there. Still majestic and still a reminder of where I stood, vibrating from the inside out and cursing how easily I bruised as I succumbed to the phantom of his hands clinging to the back of my thighs. I drained my glass as I watched his reflection close in on mine. It took a quick diversion toward the door to the balcony that I never remembered how to pull or push.

The cathedral lights illuminated his face as he smoked outside. I sat on the deck chair with my legs pulled up to my chest. the cool breeze bringing drops of rain and floods of memories. The night he had said he’d like to see if we could make this work. The night he said he might not leave. The night we had watched the sunrise while my thin socks kept catching on the rough concrete deck and his hand slid down the inside back of my jeans.

Now we sat in the two chairs, the air snapping as if to ask “What now?” Or maybe that was just the sound of his lighter as he lit a cigarette and listened to a group of women cackling with delight on the street below.

“Who has a bachelorette party on a Wednesday?” he asked, and I realized it is Wednesday — our usual day when we would bite each other’s lips and whisper things that would echo in my ears and make me blush on Thursday and even into Friday. They just made it harder to wait for some kind of text message from him that wouldn’t come until maybe Monday. Asshole.

We were just like this on his balcony when he said I talked too much and laughed too loud. I had been staring at the cathedral when he asked me to give him credit for taking me home with him instead of my more attractive friend because he thought I was more interesting. I stood up and leaned against the iron railing to get a better look at the church and heard him say, six months previous, “You’re so confusing. It’s like you’re as cool as a guy, but in this great female body.”

Suddenly I wanted to take the cigarette out of his mouth and shove the lit end into the bridge of his nose. Instead he flicked it into the planter-turned-mass-grave. As he stood, I hoped he would kiss me in time for me to still taste it on his tongue.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. I squeezed the air out of his down coat and wondered if we were going to watch one more sunrise together.

The sweet smoke smell fills my nose, cutting through the burnt black coffee smell rising from my hands. The man turns on the street corner, raising the cigarette to his lips as he waits for the light to change so he can survive crossing the street only to die of lung cancer when he’s 50. His hazel eyes catch the sun.

The stranger walked one way and I went the other, sipping my coffee and adjusting the Corvette pin on my jacket. Of all the things I remember about him, I still can’t recall the color of his eyes.

Short Story: “Smartass at a Coffee Shop”

She’s sitting in the next booth, reading a Jackie Collins book and just generally pissing me off.

Maybe it’s the fluorescent pink hardback she’s holding open so wide that my spine feels like it’s being cracked, too. Maybe it’s the perfect manicure that’s gripping the shiny dust jacket, or the way her Prada eyewear frames her eyes, which flit across the pages in a way that suggests she’s only interested in two or three words of each paragraph.

Or maybe its because my life is nowhere near as perfect as hers, as I can’t just sit and read while Drummer For A Fiona Apple Cover Band Serena serves me endless $5 lattes and High Schooler Just Doing This Because It Looks Good on College Applications Ethan wipes down my table every couple of minutes to get a glance at the surgically perfect cleavage peeping out of my shirt.

Instead I’m here, peering over my laptop screen while Barista Who Foolishly Bought the Bankrupt Co-Owner’s Shares Walter gives me the fisheye for ordering a single small green tea. I learned long ago to take advantage of free hot water refills so I can continue to steep my brought-from-home tea bags. My chewed nails still have last week’s self-applied polish clinging on for dear life, and the last book I read was the owner’s manual to my new, but already outdated, Macbook.

There are only a few words typed out on the glaring white Word page: my name and the date, written like it would appear on a pretentious wedding invitation. “January the Fourteenth, Two-Thousand and Six” takes up more room than “Jan. 14, 2006.”

Now she’s paying her bill with a platinum credit card that catches the light as she holds it out to Serena. She’s probably charging fifty bucks of coffee and milk to her company’s account just because she can and wants the rest of the world to know it. As she clacks out of the restaurant in thousand-dollar shoes, I can only imagine she works for some high-profile PR agency or couture fashion house, which makes me hate her even more.

My editor calls me two minutes after the Jackie Collins reader walks out. He’s pissed because my second chapter is too short, or my first chapter is too long, and I’m not following the plot structure I’m contracted to observe in everything I write for Rose Throne Publishing, Ltd., a decades-old peddler of ripped bodices and oiled pecs. My editor likes balance, and I suppose I can’t blame him. After all, it’s because of him my books get published — and straight to paperbacks sold for pocket change to vacationers and rebellious teenage weirdos about to hide the lurid lasciviousness among ignored copies of Catcher in the Rye.

He also points out, and rightfully so, that I’m almost a week late with the third chapter. The problematic truth is that I didn’t plan on a Chapter Three because I was hoping to move on from this shit job by the time Chapters One and Two ended up on his desk. I was just lucky that a good enough plot presented itself to me for Chapter Two after I found that life would continue like usual after finishing Chapter One.

That’s why I don’t care or blame him for not liking the route the story is taking. This story wasn’t even meant to leave the parking lot.

Another patron walks into the café and orders a macchiato. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and the nightclub stamp fading on the back of his hand on this chilly Wednesday morning tells me all I care to know about his social habits.

He winks at me, and I return the favor by staring back at the glare of an empty Word document.

I’m down to the last tea bag in the box I brought from home, so I ask for a to-go cup as I pack up my laptop and notebooks. I’m too busy shooting a saccharine smile at Walter as he hands me the cardboard cup to notice that my phone’s still on the table.

The Nightclubber doesn’t even try to hide the full-body scan he’s performing with his eyes when he asks me how my day is going. I don’t give him the satisfaction of answering before breaking out into the freezing wind tunnel of Jackson Boulevard.

The beautiful thing about Chicago is that it’s freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. There’s no in-between. The most accurate bumper sticker I’ve ever seen says “Chicago’s Four Seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, Construction.”

And I love it.

In the middle of January, it’s impossible to catch a cab. Overhead, the El rushes past. Tourists cover their ears from the sound. It’s really not that bad. Lake Michigan’s up ahead, where the wind makes everything colder. It’s a God-send in July, but a Devil’s advocate in January.

Jackie Collins Reader is visible a block ahead, walking in her fabulous shoes toward Michigan Avenue.

My editor probably tries to call me again, but I can’t answer because I don’t have a phone. I guess he’ll just have to wait, or talk to Busboy With A PhD in South American History Ricardo, whose Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are perfect, but whose English is limited to phrases like “More coffee?” and “Have a nice day.”

Or maybe the Nightclubber has got my phone and is adding every saved female contact with a 312 area code to his list of viable dates. The joke’s on him: Half the women in there are married or over 40, as they’re all my relatives or people at the publishing company.

As I cross the street against the light, I’m not thinking about this because I’m trying not to get killed by oncoming cars. When they honk at me, I trick myself into thinking it’s because I look stellar in my $20 jeans and Nordstrom Rack parka. The slip-on loafers can’t hurt, either.

When I head up to my apartment three stories above a 7-Eleven with a perpetually broken slurpee machine, the red light on my answering machine is blinking. It’s Walter, the angry barista who was pissed about me taking up space and paying the bare minimum for heated tap water and a single bag of dead leaves.

“Hello, this is Walter from Kayama. I’m just calling to let you know that we found your cellphone at the table you occupied this afternoon. Please come by to pick it up by the end of the day. We close at half-past four.”

“Or what?” I talk back to the recording. The clock reads 4:23.

When I walk into Kayama the next morning, Walter is wearing the same annoyed puckers look he probably had when leaving the message, and I wonder if he went home to his two pugs with that expression on his face. I know I could make it up to him by ordering a $7 double-grande frappucino and $10 ham-and-gruyere tart the size and consistency of a Little Debbie cupcake, but I don’t have that kind of money. Just my phone and a small tea to go, please.

The bell above the door jingles while Walter is begrudgingly filling a cup with hot water. Click-clacking announces the arrival of Jackie Collins’ biggest fan. Today she’s reading Chelsea Handler, as she’s done skimming her read from yesterday.

She orders a $6 cup of Joe this time, and I walk out with my tea clasped in one hand and my phone in the other. Check Kayama off of my hangouts list. I don’t like cafes seeped in animosity and echoing with the heel-clacking of shoes worth more than my rent payment.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.52.34 PM

Taken this weekend at Third Coast, an excellent Chicago brunch place that isn’t half-owned by an annoying barista named Walter. If you go, try the stuffed French toast.

Excerpt: “Caravan”

They left Agatha in the car to fume. She might have just gotten back from the Philippines after Typhoon Huanan, but storm destruction was child’s play compared to what could be lurking in the Midwestern home on Cherry Drive.

Agatha, of course, was not happy. She continued arguing with them, then with the empty front seats, after they parked their Ford crossover on the street. Only a distant thunder rumble and leaves rustling in a pre-storm gust answered her back.

On the porch stood the homeowner, a pedestrian-looking woman in a Disney World sweatshirt and jeans. She watched her guests walk up the pathway, arms crossed and a scowl of both impatience and relief on her face.

“You’re not exactly what I expected,” she said when they made it to the porch. “But Lindsey says you’re the best option for our area, and maybe she’s right.”

“We’ll do our best,” said the man, slate eyes matching the color of the dark clouds roiling above. “I’m Handel Onderzoeker, and this is Maeve.”

Next to her attractive but unmemorable husband, Maeve looked like a character in a fantasy novel. Her hair was cropped short to her head with tufts of deep purple breaking up black-brown sleekness. The faint lines around her mouth hinted to a wicked smile, and her dark eyes reflected the streetlights lit early because of the darkening October skies.

“I’m Judy Turner,” the homeowner said absently, distracted by her survey of Maeve. “Let me show you the piano.”

She turned to lead them into the house, talking behind her the entire way.

“It just started playing in the middle of the night. We just moved here, and before we signed the papers a few of the neighbors warned us that this place had a tendency to change hands over and over. Then Jerry Gomez down the road said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was haunted, and everyone at the D’Angelo’s cookout started talking about things they had heard about. LaVonte Simmons next door — smart man, and a specialized pediatric surgeon at Memorial Children’s — said he had once heard someone wailing in the backyard, even though he didn’t see anyone when he looked over the fence, and I just can’t forget that. Of course, I don’t put a lot of stock in that haunted stuff, but when a doctor even says he’s seen something, I just couldn’t ignore it. And then last night? At first I thought it was a neighbor kid trying to give us a scare — you know how Halloween time gets kids hopped up on sugar and acting stupid — but when I came down, it was just going by itself like someone was sitting there, playing it.”

She led Handel and Maeve into the parlor. The wallpaper had been changed and the carpet replaced many times over the decades, but the crown molding and high ceiling of a bygone era remained. An faded upright piano in the corner sat innocently, the bench tucked in neatly and a stack of well-loved practice books nestled into a basket on the floor beside it. Its keys were yellowed with tobacco and age, like an old man’s teeth.

“There’s definitely a presence here,” Maeve said, drawing closer to the piano. “Was there a particular song that the piano played? Anything you recognized?”

“It could have been playing ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and I wouldn’t have known,” Judy said. “I couldn’t think straight, and it stopped just a few seconds after I got down here. There’s probably a pretty solid explanation, but Lindsey said to call you. My sister is the most superstitious woman I’ve ever met, always has been. When we were little she came home from a sleepover in tears because her friends had forced her to play Bloody Mary. Said she actually saw something in the dark bathroom mirror, if you can believe it. I just told her it was her own reflection, but that didn’t matter to her.”

“No, Bloody Mary is real,” Maeve muttered to herself as she moved around the dowdy woman to the side of the piano.

“You’re sure it’s not a player piano?” asked Handel. He played the skeptic in the two-hunter team, while Maeve was the mystic — their rendition of good cop, bad cop. “We’ve worked with people who own player pianos and don’t realize it until it starts going one night because of a loose gear or something.”

“Positive,” the woman said. “It came with the house. The last owner said he didn’t want to pay to move it out of here, but I think he just didn’t want to deal with getting it through these narrow doors. I hardly know how they got it in here eighty years ago let alone how they would get it out now. I’ll get you his number so you can talk to him.”

She turned to leave the room but caught sight of Maeve. The ghost hunter had closed her eyes and rested her head and hands on the top of the piano, smiling serenely.

“I think it wants to play again,” she crooned, more to it than to the two people in the room.

The homeowner looked at Handel with a raised eyebrow. He shrugged as if to say, “She always does this.”

“There’s someone here who wants to play it. A man? Maybe the original owner. He bought the piano for his daughter, who ran away from home three weeks later with the chauffeur.” Then Maeve lifted her head and gazed at where the invisible player’s eyes would be. “If you want to play, play.”

Handel crossed his arms, waiting for the music to start. Maeve had a way of talking to spirits, and they had a way of listening to her. The middle-C key pressed down, then up again, then down in a typical tuning exercise.

Judy gaped at the keys now starting to pick up a melody. For the first time since their arrival, she was speechless.

“I think you need to get out of the house,” Handel said to her quietly. “We don’t know if this is an angry spirit, and if he’s upset at you for buying the home, then you might be in danger.”

Judy sputtered that she would be in the backyard and left the room quicker than Handel had ever seen a client run. Once Handel saw her standing on the edge — the absolute edge — of the yard through the large parlor windows, he nodded at Maeve.

“Time to call it off?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Maeve said, turning from the piano. “It’s playing our song.” Handel could hear it now; the piano had started playing a soft version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” that mellowed the original’s exotic jazz beat into a hypnotic lullaby.

Handel took his wife by the waist and started dancing with her to the music, the soft carpet muffling their steps as they turned and swayed to the spectral playing. The parlor dropped away, and the ghost kept playing.

~

They were back three years to their wedding night, before Maeve knew of Handel’s dark past and Handel knew of Maeve’s even darker secret. Before they started calming domestic hauntings. Before they realized just how much they would end up needing each other.

“Thank you,” he whispered into her ear as her veil tickled his nose.

“For what?”

“For making me feel normal.”

When he was with her, his father wasn’t a convicted serial killer. When she was with him, her terrifying childhood didn’t exist. But neither knew that about each other at that moment. They wouldn’t confess either of their respective unsavory histories until early the next morning when they would awake in the honeymoon suite to the curtains on fire and a spectral laugh emanating from every corner of the room.

~

The upright piano stopped playing, but Maeve and Handel still stood in each other’s arms in the middle of the parlor, both of them remembering their last night of normalcy with each other three years before.

Then a tapping on the window — Judy was impatient again.

“You’re two sick people,” she said after Handel had retrieved her from the back door. “I have a haunted piano in my house, and you find time to slow dance. If you think I’m paying you for —”

“You won’t hear him play anymore, Mrs. Turner,” Maeve spoke in her airy voice, the one she put on for the clients. It was a tone of voice that always incurred the most mysterious of reactions from homeowners — wonder and annoyance, but mostly respect.

Maeve, carrying out her Ghost-Huntress persona, explained what she had heard when she put her hands on the piano. The man who bought the piano had done so for his daughter’s wedding to his boss’ son, a prominent community figure who had money and would eventually inherit the streetcar factory. It was going to be the marriage of the year in the small Midwest town that thrived because of the betrothed’s company, and the father had wanted to play the couple’s first dance to bring a sense of intimacy to the event that would surely be a magnet for every social vulture in the county.

The daughter, however, ran away from home with a newspaperman a week before the wedding. Her father died shortly after — some said of embarrassment, but really it was from tuberculosis — and he had never gotten the chance to play for the married couple. Every time his spirit returned to play the piano, he was met with screams and fear from the home’s new owner rather than dancing and joy. Judy, who was clearly a recent divorcee from the tan line around her left ring finger, was the last person he wanted in his house.

But they hadn’t. So Maeve and Handel did, and now he was able to cross over to the afterlife, his goal fulfilled.

Whether Judy believed it or not, Handel couldn’t tell. She signed the papers and gave them the hundred dollars in cash, as per their policy. The rules of the contract they made every client sign stated that they would come in for a small fee, assess the issue and fix it if they could. If a week had passed and the haunting had stopped, the homeowner would pay the rest of the $2,000 bill. It had worked so far; they were raking in six figures every year, with a 95 percent success rate.

The sky outside had started to sizzle with a fall mist as they walked out of the house. Agatha was still in the back of their crossover, staring glumly out the window. As they approached the vehicle, Handel slowed to a stop and looked at his wife.

“Ran away with a newspaperman?” he asked. Maeve shrugged, a mischevious smile blowing across her face with the breeze before it was gone again. Handel shook his head: “You realize that’s part of the plot from It Happened One Night, right?”

“I only borrow from the best,” she said, her voice returned to its normal tone, before taking his hand and leading him back to the car.

“If I’m going to write about you, I’m going to need to shadow you,” Agatha said as they got in the car.

“There wasn’t much to see here,” Handel said. He knew Agatha trusted him more than she did Maeve, so he was the one to make their excuses. “Just a haunted piano that played on its own. The next house will be more interesting, I promise.”

“And you’ll let me come in with you?” Agatha pressed.

“Yes,” he said. “But you might regret that later.”

“Why?”

“Our next client says his guest bedroom has a tendency of swallowing unwanted visitors.”

“If that doesn’t hook a few readers, I quit journalism,” Agatha said, nestling back with satisfaction. Her editor was going to love her.

 

This piece was the kickoff for a bigger project I’m working on. The idea came to me when listening to Rachel Portman’s arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” heard in the film Chocolat.