Leave the ghosts behind

Every box I packed last week, I made sure that none of the infected things were in it.

Nothing that had your memory on it made it into a box. Nothing that you had given me with a card, or shipped me in those polka-dotted sacks that Amazon uses to specify that someone half-dead on their feet put into a bag for someone who didn’t order it. None of the empty vases from my birthday flowers; not the crumpled business card or shotgun shell on a chain or the event wristbands curling into itself on my counter after your last visit; none of the burned CDs you left in my car — remember when we’d tear down silent suburb streets in that 2003 Impala, Nate Ruess and Janelle Monae declaring that we were young?

Instead I held a funeral at the garbage shoot: My own memorial to the people who had come and gone — or, rather, the times I had to the people who had come and gone. A wake for the person I was with them, and the parts of me that they had taken with them as souvenirs.

And I thought it would work. I really did. After all, we always say at the coffin’s edge “They’re in a better place.” And I’m sure all of you went to better places with husbands, wives, children, functioning livers, fulfilling careers. And, truth be told, I myself am in a better place than where many of you left me — a new apartment with in-unit laundry and a private balcony.

But when all the boxes were packed and taped, then untaped and unpacked, it became clear: I could set afire the love notes and friend notes with a bundle of smoking sage, but it wouldn’t burn the memories of you out of my mind.

So I guess I took you with me. I’ll try not to bother you.

Hope you enjoy the fresh air and sharp dryer buzzer.

Excerpt: The devil would have to wait

Lucinda tried to pay the encroaching flames no mind. Wade had pulled his oil lamp trick again, tipping it back and forth with his boot to get the guard to admit there was dynamite rigged under the safe, and had instead set the floor afire. Now the puddle of flames was growing into a conflagration that threatened the entire train car, and every Higgs Boy was operating like the fire line Lucinda had seen put out the neighbor’s barn when she was a child — except instead of passing buckets of water toward the fire, they were passing cash and gold bars down the line and away from it. 

And the money just kept coming. Soon Elton and Job’s sacks were filled, and Job had yanked the bag he wore over his head off so he could use it to continue. The guard was unconscious in the corner, courtesy of a hard knock to the head from the butt of Squirrel’s gun, and the passengers were too concerned with escaping the burning train that they didn’t bother the robbers in the slightest — not even to try to retrieve the jewelry or pocket money that the Higgs Boys had already relieved from them.

“Must be bonus season,” Squirrel cackled as he passed a stack of what looked like bearer bonds to Trent.

The fire started popping and cracking its way up the train car wall. Lucinda wiped a sheet of sweat from her brow. Wade stood straight, backing away to survey the open safe. From this angle, Lucinda couldn’t see inside of it — but she could see the clocks working in Wade’s head as he balanced the wealth still available for the taking with the danger that the blaze was now posing to himself and his crew.

The sole glass lamp in the car fell off the wall and shattered on the floor, as if goading him to make the decision. 

“Everyone out,” Wade called. Squirrel, who was just on the other side of Lucinda, carried the message the rest of the way down the train car, and they started disembarking.

“You too, Luce,” Wade said, grabbing her wrist as he passed her. The carpetbag on her arm jangled with the valuables she had taken from the first class passengers.

“I’ve got room in the bag,” she said, yanking away from him and turning back to the safe. From her estimate, there were two more money bags inside, plus a couple gold bars and — much to her surprise and gratitude — a small crate labeled “Smith and Wesson.” They were low on bullets these days. 

“Lucinda!” Wade yelled as she crouched in front of the safe and scooped money, gold and bullets into the carpetbag.

“Get the guard out,” she yelled back. “I’ll be right behind you.” 

Wade’s frustration was palpable as he stepped around her and lifted the guard to his feet, looping one of his arms around the man’s waist. As soon as he had a good grip on the guard, Lucinda slid the last bar of gold into her bag and stood up. Wade slammed the safe shut so he could move around its heavy door. The guard’s legs dragged across the floor as he sputtered against the smoke and blood filling his nose.

The flames were almost to the ceiling now, and Lucinda’s eyes were drawn upward to a shelf above the safe, where something glittered. A heavy gilded paperweight sparkled in the firelight, and she reached up to grab it, her eyes beginning to water from the smoke.

“Lucinda!” Wade yelled from the door, and she turned back to him with the paperweight now in her bag. Trent was visible just outside, sitting on his horse and holding the reins of the two others. Lucinda watched as Wade pushed the half-conscious guard out the door so that he landed with a thud on the ground below: injured, but ultimately alive. Another witness to contribute a verse to the ballad of Wade Higgs and his Boys.

She moved toward the door, satisfied with her collection, but something stopped her. It wasn’t fear or greed — it was her petticoat, stuck in the sealed safe door.

“Wade!” Lucinda cried out as she tried to free it. 

The bag slipped on Lucinda’s arm, and a dozen bullets came rolling out of it directly toward the flames, cooking off and exploding in the conflagration. One grazed Wade’s arm, tearing the fabric but not drawing blood. 

Flames licked at her feet as she tried to pull her skirts up high enough to keep them away from the fire’s hunger. Wade ran back into the car, coughing and holding his arm up like a shield against the heat. He ducked down to where her skirt was caught in the safe and joined her in pulling it, but to no avail. 

“I’ll be right back,” he said, crawling across the floor to avoid the smoke collecting up toward the ceiling. Lucinda ducked down, too, continuing to yank at her skirts and pray the flames wouldn’t get much closer. Her skin was already starting to feel tight and raw, like she had been in the sun for far too long.

When Wade didn’t come back, Lucinda realized with panic that he had taken the carpetbag with him. 

So this was going to be how Lucinda Ellis of Crocus Falls died: on her third train robbery, with her skirt stuck in a safe and the money, jewels, gold and bullets she had collected now split among five men who had left her to be burned alive. At least she could get used to the flames of hell now, as she waited for the devil to take her. 

The paperweight shelf, now engulfed, fell onto the top of the safe. Burning wood flew everywhere, and Lucinda twisted around to avoid injury to her eyes. Part of it had landed on the sleeve of her dress, where it smoldered a hole in the cotton and left a shiny patch of red skin beneath.

The devil would have to wait, she decided, as she knocked the last of the burning wood onto her trapped petticoat. The fabric started to smoke, then light. But she had misjudged the flame: It wasn’t traveling across the petticoat to free her — instead, it was crawling up it, closer to her skin.

The skin above her bare knee blistered shiny and red as the fire got closer. Lucinda willed her mind to ignore the searing pain and kept pulling, but every yank of the skirt burned her hands or pulled the flames closer to her hip. Her eyes watered, either from the smoke or the pain, probably both, but they were still able to see it: A glint of silver amidst the golden glow.

“Move,” Wade yelled, raising the knife and bringing it down on the fabric just above where the flames had reached. It yielded, and Wade snatched Lucinda’s arm as he pulled her down the train car and out the door just before the roof caved in, sending a plume of smoke closer to the heavens than any of the fleeing forest birds dared fly.

To all the jerks I’ve wasted time on before

With the release of Disney’s Cruella trailer, critic Carrie Wittmer tweeted this:

Yes! It’s hard not to notice this new trend, especially as it skulks into the room wearing a manmade cape that’s screenprinted with the words “Female Empowerment!” That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Promising Young Woman, Queen’s Gambit and WandaVision — on the contrary, I’m a huge fan (I haven’t seen The Flight Attendant yet, but it’s on my list). Cruella might be the film that breaks the projector, however, if Disney decides to Harley Quinnivize the most 2D, chaotic evil villain they’ve ever had on screen.

The woman wants a coat made of puppy fur. It’s not that deep, Diz.

But before the hunger for erratic yet enjoyable femme characters gets over-fed (and we might already be teetering on the edge of the Monty Python “Just a Thin Mint” sketch), I’ve been thinking of my own way of processing things and how that might be turned into something that adds to this cacophony.

I’m a writer struggling with her current WIP. What else am I supposed to do?

When I’m hurt and/or angry, I turn to music. Listening, mind you: I compensate for my lack in musical talent (apart from 2-3 years of piano lessons) with an insatiable thirst for new bands, sounds and genres. But there’s a reason why in early 2020, the Birds of Prey soundtrack played on loop. And why SZA’s “Drew Barrymore” makes me think of this one particular high rise in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. And why My Chemical Romance’s “I Don’t Love You” brings up memories of at least three people who have exited my life.

So here’s my pitch, thanks entirely to seeing Wittmer’s tweet and wishing I had learned to play guitar at a young age:

It’s a reversed To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for adults. A rock band singer finds out that her bandmates accidentally invited all of her exes to their supposed-to-be-tiny reunion show taking place at a pre-renovation closed strip club (the dusty floors, the mirrors, the randomly placed poles! So much drama!). Each chapter takes her through a song she thinks of when she sees them and tells the story of why. It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy: telling the men in her life exactly what she thinks about them now that she’s gotten out from under them and into her own spotlight…by being in the spotlight that none of them ever knew she could command.

I’d write more here, but I’d rather write more somewhere else. You might see some trial runs on this site or even a Spotify playlist link as it takes shape.

Now to go explain to Lucky Ellis why I’m ignoring her for a while…

Found Fiction: Apple Cores

I once ate an apple, and when I got to the core, I took one look inside to see the brown seeds. Instead, the seeds and the walls were covered in fuzzy gray mold. The apple had been dying inside — was dead inside — all along.

In one motion, I spit out the piece I had just put in my mouth, tossed the core away and immediately brushed my teeth. I didn’t touch another apple for more than a month, and when I did, I didn’t eat toward the core. I’d enjoy the juicy flesh, but I didn’t want to take the chance of finding out if it was dying on the inside.

That’s the way we deal with people, isn’t it? We like them until we get to their core, and if they’re gray and fuzzy, we toss them aside and spit out the good part because we’re paranoid that some of that fuzzy badness will rub off on us, and our own mouths will turn to gray and fuzzy. We wash our hands of them, brush our teeth of them, try to forget we ever dealt with them. And what scares us the most is if that juicy, flavorful, shiny person has a sickening inside, then any juicy, flavorful, shiny person has the potential to have that sickening inside. And there’s no way to tell just by looking at them, or by biting into them. You have to spend the time ripping the flesh from them and diving deep, enjoying each sweet taste until you get to the core and find out if there’s brown life or gray death. You have to get to the core.

This was found in notes from July 2017. Even now I’m not sure who I was specifically writing about, or if I was just getting maudlin about a bad apple at lunch that day.

Vignette: The Tinkerer

The bell above the entrance tinkled its chime — two back-and-forths of the tiny bauble, then the clink of the whole ornament against the glass as the door shut. Malfi looked down the row and saw a middle-aged woman in a periwinkle knit sweater set standing at the entrance, clutching a jewelry case that was too big for a bracelet but too small for a necklace.

“Back here,” Malfi called, hardly looking up from the porcelain duck she was fixing. She had to hold the beak to its head for no less than 30 seconds for the glue to dry, and she had just rounded on the fourteenth.

The woman looked down the aisle with trepidation, as if unsure she had arrived in the right place despite the bold gold lettering on the door announcing it as Icarus Antiquities and Repairs. Deciding she was better off by the door, she decided to stay put and shout her wishes across the cluttered shop floor.

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

“That’s me, but I you have to come to the back of the shop,” Malfi said. Twenty-two seconds.

The linoleum tiles overlaying dull wood flooring groaned as the customer began her journey toward the back of the shop, dodging the chandeliers and braziers hanging from the ceiling like a jungle explorer ducking vines. Malfi’s 30 seconds were up long before the woman reached the back desk.

“I have an old pocket watch that needs fixing,” the woman said, not even acknowledging the broken ducktail that Malfi was now trying to match with the back of its glossy cream body. “I was told the owner could help.”

Malfi put the ducktail back onto the purple cushion where the other broken pieces sat.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, deftly sliding a drawer under the counter open so she could retrieve her jeweler’s glass.

The woman clutched the box to her chest as if Malfi had insulted the watch she had not yet seen.

“I was told the owner could help,” she said.

Malfi flashed her a disingenuously wide smile, as she all too familiar with this comment. At 28 years old, with jet black hair, a gold bar threaded through her left eyebrow, and a miniature version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holfernes tattooed on her right forearm, she wasn’t the person most people expected as the proprietor of a high-end antique resale and repair shop. The truth was that even she didn’t believe it some days, but leave it to that reclusive Uncle Pius to bequeath the shop to her — provided she allow keep the staff on in his absence.

“Ma’am, I am the owner of this shop,” she said. “If you’re looking for Pius Brown, he died a year ago. I’m his great-niece, and I would love to help you with your pocket watch. But first you need to take it out of the box.”

You’re the Tinkerer?”

Malfi was surprised to hear someone mention the Tinkerer by name.

“I’m not, but may I ask how you know them? A friend, perhaps?”

“My neighbor said they fixed their mantel clock,” the woman said. “I was hoping they could help me with my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. He found it in the war, see, and I want to give it to my son for his high school graduation gift.”

Malfi nodded and pushed the duck aside. She held out her hand for the box. Before the woman could hand it to her, however, the trap door behind the counter swung up and open with a bang that knocked the newly glued duck’s beak right off its face.

“Damn,” Malfi swore as she caught the porcelain piece just as it was about to hit the ground.

“I heard my name,” said the person now emerging from the cellar under the shop. “Did someone ask for the Tinkerer?”

“This lady’s got a pocket watch that needs repairing,” Malfi said. “Says you fixed her neighbor’s mantel clock.”

The Tinkerer emerged all the way out from their subterranean workshop, and Malfi got to enjoy yet again the expression on the face of any customer who had never yet met the shop’s star repair expert. Six-foot-seven with a feathery shock of white-blond hair, the Tinkerer was almost 80 years old but had failed to shrink in their old age. In fact, they seemed to have failed to age at all. The only sign of dilapidation on him was the inch-thick lenses they wore in his glasses, though Malfi had been told that they had always needed that strong a prescription. The Tinkerer’s daily uniform consisted of black pants faded to gray, a thick canvas-like button down that was yellowing around the cuffs and armpits, and a worn leather apron that caught all manner of soot, glue, metal shavings, threads, cotton fillings, straw, staples and more.

“Let’s have a look,” they said. A warm smile to the woman, and whether she wanted to or not, she was handing the pocket watch box over to them.

The Tinkerer opened the box and drew the watch out by its chain. It swung like the paper lanterns hanging above the counter, catching their light.

“Good casing. A few scratches but nothing that can’t be buffed out.” The Tinkerer opened the watch and examined its face. “Ah, but it has most definitely stopped ticking. We can get that fixed pretty easily — a lot of times these old watches just need a little cleaning and TLC. That means ‘tender loving care,'” they said, peering over their lenses at the woman, who stood transfixed. Her gaze was locked on the Tinkerer’s hair, which had a holographic effect that reminded Malfi of a plastic unicorn’s mane.

When the Tinkerer’s eyes fell back to the watch, they spotted something that even its owner hadn’t noticed. Malfi handed her jeweler’s glass to the Tinkerer, who then replaced their glasses with it.

“There seems to be some odd staining here, right above the 6 numeral,” the Tinkerer said, leaning even closer to it so that the jeweler’s glass in their eye almost collided with the watch face.

Malfi and the customer only saw the brow and cheek squeezing to hold the jeweler’s glass in place as the Tinkerer examined the watch. They didn’t see the horrors that were passing through the lens into the Tinkerer’s mind. Palm trees on fire. An ashen thatched roof blowing in the wind caused by a bomb blast close enough to raise the temperature in the tiny village. A skeletal child running through dirt streets crying for her mother, clutching the gold chain in her hand as the watch dragged across the pavement. A dying man pulling himself along the ground behind the watch, reaching for it in his last living breath, and disappearing as his fingers brushed the metal.

With a gasp, the Tinkerer pulled away and dropped the watch on the table. They ripped the jeweler’s glass from their eye and put the watch back in the box. The customer, unsurprisingly, looked concerned.

“I’ll need at least six weeks,” the Tinkerer said, trying to compose themself as they slipped the box into their oversized apron pocket.

“That’s not acceptable,” the woman said, the concern wearing down to annoyance. “My son’s graduation is in two weeks and I want to give it to him at his party that night.”

“Get him a keg and a laptop,” the Tinkerer said, their whimsical charm gone. “They’re better presence for an 18-year-old. Especially considering that if you give him this watch, he’ll be dead before he can get to college.”

Music of the Write: “Haunted” by Poe

I recently finished reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. If you haven’t read it before but enjoy writing and reading horror, literary analysis, family drama, dysfunctional romance, mythology or surrealism — you might want to pick up a copy. Just be aware: It’s a job.

House of Leaves is ergodic fiction, which means that it’s written in a way other than the traditional way, where you read page one and keep turning pages until you reach the end. Instead, it’s told in the form of letters, manuscripts, asides, footnotes, poems and extensive appendices and exhibits tucked in the back of the book. Prep yourself with three bookmarks so you can track where you are as you jump back and forth between the multiple storylines explored.

Is all that work worth it? At some points I’d say “no.” There’s parts that were hard (for my end-of-the-day brain, anyway) to navigate, and I have to admit I merely skimmed the pages and pages of “Pelican Poems” in the appendix. But the story lines — one about a family whose house has an invisible labyrinth within it that changes as you explore it, one about how that family’s house is the subject of a documentary that doesn’t actually exist but was being analyzed and written up by an old blind man before he died, and one about the tattoo artist/apprentice trying to preserve the old man’s manuscript while running from his own demons — are equally fascinating, even though they occasionally dip into what I call “late-1990s cishet male angst.” Think High Fidelity but 80 times longer and without confusingly charming John Cusack.

Close to finishing the book, a friend introduced me to Poe’s Haunted album, which was entirely based on the book. Turns out that the artist is Danielewski’s sister, which means she had a leg up on creating what I think is not just a fantastic concept album, but also a great guide for understanding the book. Think SparksNotes but song in a way that Fiona Apple and/or the Cranberries would have done it.

Anyway, I haven’t listened to the album while writing (yet — there are some tracks like “Dear Johnny” and “Spanish Doll” that could end up in a project playlist or two), but it got me thinking about how a writer’s work can inspire other artists to create. Film adaptations tend to be the first thing to enter our heads, but an album? Now that’s a labyrinth I could get lost in for a while…

Poe’s full album is available on YouTube, but be a good sport and buy it from iTunes if you can. Support artists!

Excerpt: Life as Wade Higgs’ Woman

Summer turned to fall, turned to winter, turned to spring again as Lucky fell into routine: Rob a train, return to camp for a celebratory fuck with Wade while Trent counted the loot, then wait for the two oldest Higgs Boys to take at least half the takings back to their ranch and return with cakes, jerky and other provisions packed by their mother. During that timeframe they robbed 18 trains, one roughly every two weeks, and averaged a haul of $3,000 in cash, bonds and jewelry every time. 

Once the money started to pile up, they began to stay in hotels during the quiet times between their robberies. Wade baulked at the notion at first, claiming that mattresses and running water would make them grow soft, but Lucky’s proposal that she’d have to dress the part of a lady if they stayed in town won him over. Almost 20 train robberies since her first one in men’s britches, and she still saw him shake his head in disagreement whenever she freely kicked a leg over a horse or hid her face and hair under the large bolero she had stolen from the man on that third robbery. As soon as they got into town, Lucky would be back to her petticoats and side-saddle demeanor, and Wade would look at her again with warm regard. 

The first few hotels they stayed at weren’t much more than austere boarding houses, with rooms each containing a narrow bed with a creaky mattress, a side table with a tin cup for gathering water at the pump outside, and maybe a stool or chair in the corner. Places like these were typically run by strict matrons who arched an eyebrow at Lucky until Wade asked if he and his wife could share a room, at which point the arch would either disappear into their hairline or soften in understanding. It didn’t matter if the landlady was suspicious or sentimental: the mattresses weren’t any softer. 

But there were also towns — typically close to the major train lines — where some wealthy East Coast hospitality man had built a hotel in the likeness to the ones he ran in New York or Chicago. These establishments dripped in red velvet and gold fringe, and hardly a footstep echoed in the plushly carpeted halls. The rooms that Lucky and Wade stayed in were closer to what she expected as Miss Mimi’s, with their large feather beds, upholstered furniture and soft gas lamps that reflected in gilded framed mirrors. And soon these were the only hotels that Wade wanted to stay in, so comfortable was he in this life away from the woods, where he could surprise his woman with dresses made of crimson satin embroidered in black roses or green velvet trimmed in cream lace.

Soon they were signing hotel registry books as “Mr. and Mrs.” and dining in not just saloons but fine restaurants using some of their steal. Nights like these, she’d be Lucinda, swathed in whatever gift Wade had left for her on the bed. As heads turned to look at her when she walked into restaurants or shops, she worried that eventually someone would notice not just the finely dressed woman who had entered the room, but also the strikingly familiar face of the man next to her. If they could just flip the switch in their mind’s eye to look at him in black pencil strokes instead of flesh and blood, they would realize they had seen him papered up on the sheriff’s office wall.

As it was, Wade didn’t much seem to care once Lucky was wrapped in the finery he had provided. A proud smile would stretch across his face as he led her into dining rooms on one arm and used the other to hand the maître-d a few folded bills to guarantee a private table toward the back, where a sheriff or marshal would be less likely to interrupt their meal. Nights like these, Lucky missed the rest of the men — while Wade took her to sip wine from crystal glasses, Trent, Job, Elton and Squirrel would jovially shuffle to the nearest saloon or spend the night at the local cat house. The allure of being Wade’s woman wore away with each night she drank sherry with a roast chicken dinner instead of a shot of whiskey chased with tavern stew. She missed Squirrel and Job’s animated storytelling or Elton’s louder-than-life laugh that rattled the glasses stacked behind the bar. Most of all, she missed being just another Higgs Boy, and she wondered if they missed her, too.

There was something else gnawing at her. Despite all of Wade’s posturing around having her as a partner both in crime and in love, Lucky was anxious. Almost a year had passed since she accepted his proposition, and yet he still didn’t trust her enough to take her along to stash some of their treasure at his family’s ranch. She hesitated bringing it up do him — she didn’t want to sound like a silly girl fussing over not meeting her beau’s family. After all, she had hosted Jeremiah Bose, Jr., at her father’s table many nights without feeling any particular way about him.

Some nights when Wade was asleep, she would think of Jeremiah: Where he was, and if he had found someone new yet. She had no doubt that had she stayed in Crocus Falls, she would be in a bed similar to this one, sticky from the undertaker’s son and left to find pleasure at her own fingertips. In Jeremiah’s bed, her mind would likely have wandered to a life like the one she was living now, convinced that it would be a better life. As it was, she now lied in Wade’s bed, wondering if it really was the escape she had been seeking.

Found Fiction: Faulty microchips and fraying leashes

On my walks I pass Hub personnel in gray and operatives in white. It’s not just the jumpsuit colors that differentiate these two groups, however. It’s the way they walk. Nurses, operators and armed orderlies either zip past like there’s a constant emergency to tend to, or saunter as if to flaunt their freedom to be apathetic. Operatives only have one setting that I’ve seen yet: Robotic, purposeful strides taken at the whim of some gray-clad operator sitting at a computer terminal.

But the one thing both have in common is that they put me on edge to the point of avoiding them at all costs. No one has asked me what I’m doing or why I’m in a certain hallway, but I know they’re staring. Waiting for me to go rogue, because that’s what MacArthur has warned them about: The rogue Operative code named Omaha with a faulty microchip in her head, insatiable curiosity and a fraying leash.

This excerpt was found in planning notes dated 2014 for my book Omaha.

Axiom Thorne: Four days to die

I’m not sure what the word is for walking amongst people who are all expecting you to die in four days. I’d say “surreal,” but there’s nothing dreamlike about everyone around you, in a morbid mix of concern and curiosity, checking their pocket watches and captain’s logs to see how close you’re getting to your predicted expiration date.

“Everyone I sleep with dies in two weeks,” Everwick told me, as if it would scare me. As if he doesn’t realize what I had to do to get here, what I’ve had to overcome to become his counterpart. Give me a break, sailor boy, and show me to your bed. I’ve waited to die before.

When I was 15 the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes told me that what powers I had displayed up to that point — the death of the Baker’s Boy, my mother’s own suspended animation — was merely a two-step compared to the bolero I would be able to perform.

As long as I survived the metamorphosis.

I walked around for one week feeling nothing. On the eighth day, I had a migraine that grounded me to the back stoop of the house. No one found me for three hours until Momma arrived home, and it took a sip of soup and three cups of her mother’s Elven tea blend to get me back on my feet. For the next two weeks, I felt an odd twinge in my neck once or twice, heard an unexpected crack or pop of a joint here and there. Then came the invisible knife that inserted itself into my stomach and amused itself by twisting anywhere from an inch to five revolutions any time I let food or drink pass my lips. I could barely make it up the stairs to my bedroom when the fourth week began, and from then on I was confined as an invalid, with Momma as my nurse. She said I slept four days straight, then cycled between yelps and dozy whimpers on the fifth. My memory places Ansel at my bedside for some of the days, but who knows if it was him, my imagination, or the Man with the Colorful Scarf distorting his own appearance.

At the end of the fourth week’s sixth day, I awoke as Momma peeled a wet compress from my forehead.

“Still so pale,” she fretted, clearly to herself, as she hadn’t realized I was awake.

I opened my eyes, and she jumped backward, then recovered herself like any good mother does when shocked but afraid of alerting her child to any sort of danger.

“What is it?” I asked. My entire body was tingling, but the pendulum ticking down the time until my death had frozen mid-swing, To some, it may have been threatening: Any second it could drop, sending me into the dark abyss that I had stared into for the past 27 days.

Momma didn’t say anything. She squeezed my hand almost as hard as she squeezed her eyes shut, and rose from my bedside so she could turn her full back to me. I straightened up from my pillows with ease, all trace of weakness vanished. My heart’s metronome clicked steadily.

The mirror above my tiny dressing table betrayed what she was keeping from me. The muddy brown of my eyes had dissolved into an crystal green that glowed against the bright orange sunset exploding through my window. No other physical attribute had changed, but inside I could tell that nothing was the same. Just looking at the mirror, I willed the light to fade, and soon it was as if a large cloud had covered the sun’s fading light. I looked at Momma and wished that the fraying cuff of her sleeve would mend: As she bent to light a candle against the new darkness, I watched the threads weave back together and finish themselves in an intricate lace. I turned to the bowl on the bedside table and boiled away the water within so that the dry rag was plastered against the bottom of the basin, like it had been left there for months in the summer heat.

The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived the metamorphosis, I would be more powerful than my mother. More powerful than her mother, or her mother’s mother. Their magic had diluted through the generations and was little more than amusements now, leaving me cursed with nothing but minor prestidigitation. I could barely conjur sparks, while my ancestors could blink wildfires into existence. But The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived, I would awaken with capabilities that they had never even fathomed. And survived, I had.

“Axiom?” My mother had asked once she had steeled herself against my flaming eyes. Her tone was forceful as she tried to hide the quiver in her voice. “How are you feeling?”

“Momma,” I said, looking at her repaired sleeve, then at my own hands, pale and ghostly in the flickering candlelight. “I feel like a god right now.”

The year I’ll become a cheerleader: Cautious optimism meets bitter realism in 2021

Remember all those word-truthers who went on and on in 2019 about how the new decade starts in 2021, not 2020? I think they had a point…

This post isn’t going to go on ad nauseum about the awfulness of 2020. We get it: the year sucked. And as much as we’d all possibly like to think of today as the start of a fresh, unsullied 365-day period, the truth is that the pandemic isn’t over. Racism and injustice isn’t over. Exploitation of the working class and economic disparity isn’t over. Hell, the current administration still has 19 days to smash up any last bits of remaining stability on its way out of the White House, and don’t think they won’t try.

But as Jonny Sun wrote this morning, “sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to help us believe that things can be different when it’s hard to believe it ourselves.” And that’s why 2021 — at least for me — is starting with a healthy cocktail of cautious optimism in a glass rimmed with bitter realism, all ending in me getting pink-faced and breathless while cheering on my friends.

(I’m doing Dry January, too, so excuse the booze-based metaphors. That and unspiked eggnog are all I’ve got right now.)

For a lot of us — notably the privileged (white, able-bodied, young, financially comfortable) among us — this is the first year that “survive” is at the top of our list of goals. COVID isn’t going away quickly, even with a vaccine now available, and I fear that the “crisis fatigue” that lured people away from playing it safe during the summer is about to hit us like a face mask soaked in chloroform. I saw a projection today that said the U.S. death toll will likely reach 700,000 by the time we wipe out the virus entirely. At 350,000-ish deaths today, we’re only halfway there.

So there’s the bitter realism on the rim of the glass. If you were able to tolerate it, now you get to balance it out with some optimism.

Any rose-tinted attitude I have toward the new year and next decade is directly due to the people around me, and here’s why: In the last 36 hours of 2020, my friends contributed more than $800 to Women Employed, an organization that’s been working for 43-plus years to enable equity for women in the workplace. One of those friends ran a virtual New Years Eve fundraiser herself for Brave Space Alliance, the only trans-led, Black-led LGBTQ+ organization serving the South and West sides of Chicago, and collected more than $550 in just 3 hours. The willingness and enthusiasm of the friends around me to take action for the causes we support made it hard to walk into 2021 with anything more than unabashed hope. There’s plenty of work to be done, but at least I know there’s also plenty of people willing to contribute to the effort. That in itself is enough to celebrate.

Which is why, in conjunction with my “survive” goal of 2021, I’ve decided that this is the year that I will become the loudest, most spirited cheerleader I can be for friends, family and causes that I support. It’s good for my soul and psyche, good for their self-esteem and energy, and (I hope) good for the world around us.

In fact, it might do us all some good to find someone or something to shake our virtual pompoms for — even if they haven’t made it to their goal yet. Remember that cheerleaders don’t show up after the game to celebrate with the winning team: They’re present from the first whistle-blow onward, and they rally support and sponsorship along the entire road to victory. And they have fun doing it! As Jonny Sun wrote, sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to give us hope, and while today that’s the change of the calendar to 2021, for the remainder of the year, that should be those who inspire us, help us grow, and make us want to be better contributors to the world around us.

Now pass me that bullhorn — I’ve got some people to cheer.