Axiom Thorne: Before there was Ansel

I’m sure by now you’ve inferred that I got my warlockian powers just in time for Ansel to mysteriously disappear from the landscape of my life. You forget: I’m the one painting this picture, and it’s not a landscape, but a self-portrait, which means you get to see exactly what I want you to see the way I want you to see it.

If you squint and look past the last layer of oils I smeared on the canvas, you’ll see another figure. Stephan, the baker’s boy. He was beautiful, and he hated me.

No, that’s wrong. He liked me, but in the way you like having an old scab ready to pop off the skin: Something to pick at.

If it wasn’t tripping me in the mud, it was baking pine needles into a cookie that he slipped into our weekly order with a note that said “For sweet Axiom, Love S.” Mamma said it was because he liked me. I still say it was because he was an asshole.

But the thing about picking at scabs is that you eventually peel off all the crusty, curling skin and hit fresh flesh underneath. And when you do, it bleeds.

We were playing along Bounty’s Creek. “Playing” might be the wrong word, as my version of it was watching Stephan pluck tiny fish out from the shallows and place them on rocks to flip, flop and bake in the hot sun. I was entranced, not repulsed, by the way the light glinted off their scales, almost strobing as they danced away their last breaths. But Stephan couldn’t care less, sweeping the dead bodies back into the water to make room for his next victims. Whenever he’d pivot around, the light would flash off the gilded viper fang that hang around his neck — a trophy from a kill, he’d boast, even though we all knew it was purchased off one of the roving traders that came through town.

I must have stepped on a twig or sneezed, because at some point he noticed me standing in the brush, a voyeur to his routine pescacide.

“Freak,” he spat at me, the one word stinging my ears.

Says the boy killing fish for fun, I now wish I had retorted.

This was about two weeks after I had first encountered the Man in the Scarf and Diamond Shoes and he had tapped me on both cheeks and told me I was magic. The tattoo on my ankle at that point looked like a couple of overgrown freckles.

So how was I to know that Stephan had said the magic word?

Just after the last fish on the rock flipped its last flop, the sun grew dark, as if a cloud had crossed it. Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, I saw instead that a mass of dark speckles had gathered above us.

Stephan let out a loud swear, and I turned to see if he was looking at the sky, too. Instead, his eyes were trained at the ground, where it looked like a landslide had started at my feet, slipping down the bank towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it wasn’t dirt but thousands of gleaming beetles clamoring over each other to get to the water. But then I realized the water wasn’t their target.

The baker’s boy didn’t dance like the dying fish. Instead, he screamed, and the bugs from above funneled into his open mouth while the bugs from below coated his skin. It was funny, really, watching a once-human body become a wriggling mass of black exoskeletons clicking and clacking against each other. Once they had had their fill, they collapsed to the ground and skittered away into nothingness.

I stepped to the edge of the water. There wasn’t even a smudge of flour where Stephan had been standing, as if the beetles had just carried him away. But there was one thing: a sliver of something shiny poking out from the silt, just past where the water lapped against the shore. It was the gold viper fang from around his neck, still attached to the chain.

Plucking it from the muck, I polished it on the hem of my shirt. Without a look back, I trudged up the bank to the high road as I clasped it around my neck.

Vignette: The Dictator’s Punishment

When they finally extricated The Dictator from his home, they stood him on the front porch and surrounded him with their guns aloft, the barrels creating a starburst pattern around his crimson faux-military getup. And from there he had to watch as they deployed his punishment:

With the flip of a small red switch, it all happened at once. Streets named after him were rechristened with the names of the people who died under his policies. Portraits of him in government offices were taken down. The buildings he had prominently displayed his name on Lost their signage to become just another skyscraper, just another hotel. Every internet post and social media account bearing his name was wiped clean. Book publishers replaced his name in every draft with just “A Man” and pulled existing copies containing his identity from the shelves.

Nobody eradicated the facts of what he had done and how he had ruined everything he touched during his rule. They didn’t ignore the ways he had come into power. To forget history doomed the country to repeat it, and no one wanted that.

What they did do was remove the memory of his name. They denied The Dictator a legacy. Because in the end, he was never concerned with doing good for the country. He was only concerned with implanting his name in its history, raising it in ten-foot letters across the fruited plains and purple mountains majesty.

Once they barred him from re-entering the home, they let The Dictator walk freely among the people he had once ruled. The Dictator waited for someone to yell something, throw something — anything to assure him they knew who he was and remembered that he once had power.

But no one did anything. No one spoke to him directly or whispered his name. A woman hustled past him with a quick “excuse me” that he heard her reiterate to other strangers on the street in the same tone.

The Dictator wasn’t special anymore. He was just another person on the street, and it was the worst torture a man like him could ever be asked to endure.

Vignette: The Return of Calvin

From the sidewalk Calvin saw them all sitting at the bar, nursing pink martinis in precarious glasses and golden beers as tall as chihuahuas. Outside it had begun to snow, making the glowing yellowish interior lighting even more warm and welcoming. The laughing patrons in their thick Irish knit sweaters, with their sharp haircuts and soft smiles, only added to the effect.

He had been standing outside long enough to lose track of his nose, fingers and toes, all carried off by the cold. A couple snowflakes slipped down the back of his jacket with perfect aim, and he took it as the universe’s signal to either muscle up and walk in, or keep going in search of somewhere else to thaw with a glass of Scotch or port, or any of the other pricy potables he had suddenly begun to crave.

But before Calvin could turn to go anywhere — the door, the crosswalk — Tyler looked up from where he had nestled his nose into Melissa’s neck and gazed straight through the window. Their eyes locked.

Tyler’s expression was the same as everyone’s that day when Calvin turned up. The internal dialog was broadcasted through the twinges and tweaks of his facial muscles, which morphed like a grotesque time lapse feed:

“That guy looks just like that weird dude, Calvin. Wait — is that Calvin? No, it can’t be Calvin. I know what that guy looked like and that is not him. But he’s got those weird amber eyes that Calvin had. It’s definitely him. But how could that possibly be him? It’s not him. Well, maybe?”

And, as he had all afternoon since coming back to his hometown, Calvin put the man out of his mental misery by giving his signature floppy wave, a trademark that earned him the popular kids’ ridicule in high school, much more than his baggy thrift store jeans and obscure graphic t-shirts ringed with sweat stains.

The bell above the bar door rang, and suddenly there were six open seats at the bar as the entire group rose to repeat what Tyler had done, gawping at Calvin in his sleek leather coat, bright cashmere scarf and dark designer jeans that framed his toned legs. He shrugged as he pulled his Burberry wallet from his back pocket to pass a gold American Express card to bartender before asking for a Glenmorangie 18-year scotch on the rocks and asking to keep the tab open.

“Been a while, Melissa,” he smirked as he pulled the glass toward him. Flanked three on each side, he felt them watch as he took a sip without the hint of a wince. “Looks like Tyler’s keeping you warm.”

“C-Calvin,” Melissa stuttered. “You— How—?”

“It was a good trip, thanks,” he said, tipping the glass in salute. “Did a lot of thinking. Some personal growth. I tell you, though. It’s great to be back.”

Calvin sipped his scotch victoriously as the onlookers gaped. Resurrection was a lot more fun than he thought it would be.

Vignette: Slim for what

“I’m not skinny for you,” she said, bolting upright in bed. She pulled away from his fingers as if they had turned to cattle prods reaching out to trace the ribs under her skin.

Truthfully, she wasn’t doing it to look like a magazine ad or provoke even more men to buy her disgusting vodka cocktails or catcall her from their cars. She woke up at five every morning to exercise, ate small lunches, avoided the sweets aisle at the grocery store, etcetera, because she liked when people underestimated her. The pitying, hungry smiles they flashed at this bird-like creature whose skin was too tight for her bones as they assumed the least of her until it was too late — she had swallowed them whole, and she hadn’t gained a pound.

Axiom Thorne: Remind me which lie I told you

OK, OK. Which version of this story did I tell you? Did Ansel die? Did he lie to me? Or did he tragically forget who I was as a cruel punishment for saving his life using ill-begot magic?

See, I forget what I tell people. There are so many renditions I’ve run through that it’s hard to keep track of who thinks they know what. You could say it’s a gift, being this good at lying, though in a lot of ways, each version somewhat resembles the truth. It’s just a matter of deciding which story I’ll tell. Usually I can figure out in the first ten minutes of knowing you what will likely tug at your heartstrings the most.

With eligible, unavailable men, it’s usually the “he lied to me” story. That one gets them every time — they love comparing their fidelity to his and feeling like the superior prospect: “I’d never cheat on my lover; I would be so much better to this woman.” Hypocritical, I know.

With eligible, available men, I talk about Ansel’s death. They decide quickly that all they need to do is clear the cobwebs of grief from my heart so they can take up residency, and the knowledge that no one from my past will come dusting them away is a confidence-boosting comfort. It’s easy to ensnare them by making them believe they have a chance to rule me.

But you all were different. No one was taking up the accursed mantel in our little club, so I figured I should do it. Every ragtag group of heroes needs its sob story, so I told you a rendition I reserve for old women and eager adolescent girls aching to have something to cry about other than aging and growing pains. And you all bought it, didn’t you? You, our captain; and you, the thief; and you, the self-righteous sea queen in disguise. I slowly revealed how Ansel had loved me, and was dying, and the Man with the Scarf and the Diamond Shoes had coaxed me into his alley and given me the magic I needed to save my love, but it came with a dreadful price.

I’ve never seen such suckers.

You all wanted to believe that my powers came from an overload of grief. It would mean they were temporary, curable with a kind smile or sunny day.

Let me assure you, my powers are about as temporary as death itself.

Of course, you’ll figure that out pretty soon. There’s a storm forming to the west, and it’s bringing ghosts this way. Maybe Ansel will be among them to tell you the truth himself.

This is the second piece I’ve written from the perspective of Axiom Thorne, the half-elf warlock I’m playing in our Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The first appeared in September as a short story. More to come, most likely.

Character vignette: Merritt King, the Pick-Me Girl

Merritt had lost something and didn’t notice until it was too late.

She had lost herself.

Somewhere in her transition from being Merri, giggle-monster middle schooler who wanted to be an archaeologist who designed fashion based on what she discovered during her digs, to Mer, hard-ass tomboy with little respect for the world and even less for herself, the real Merritt King had ducked out through an emergency exit and left her feeling empty.

“You’re the worst kind of girl,” Cardeja had yelled at her as she stormed away across the lunchroom. “A Pick-Me girl. The kind who pushes other girls down because she thinks it’ll make a boy like her more.”

What made Mer so mad that day at her best friend — no, former best friend — was that Deja was right. Matt Charles had walked into their fourth period algebra class one day, and that night she had gone home and stripped the walls bare of the computer printouts of One Direction with highlighter hearts around Harry’s face; pushed all her dresses to the back of the closet; stolen the oldest issues from her brothers’ Car and Driver and Sports Illustrated archives; and watched an hour of YouTube videos describing how to apply liberal amounts makeup in a way that looks like you’re not wearing any at all.

If every other girl in class was going to hyperfeminize to attract the new boy, she was going to stand out by doing the exact opposite.

The next day she walked into school with her skinny jeans cuffed unevenly, Chuck Taylors rubbed dirty with mulch from the front lawn, and brother’s raggedy flannel shirt hanging over a low-cut camisole. She passed Matt’s locker, jeans cutting into her sides, Chucks giving her the mother of all blisters, and flannel itching her armpits. But she felt like she looked good, and that was what confidence was, right?

She sat on her hands so she wouldn’t bite her nails during study hall as she tried every opening line out in her head. The Car and Driver sat on her desk, untouched. And then he was walking in, with his hair perfectly pushed back from his emerald eyes, and his Rolling Stones T-shirt so authentically him. At least, it felt that way.

Mer opened her mouth to cooly say “Hey,” but was rudely interrupted by Mrs. Tarvinski dropping dead at her desk in what would become a mass extinction of anyone over the age of 17.

Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.