Axiom Thorne: Seeking help from Hanso Jon

After Stephan crumbled into a pile of cockroaches and beetles, I fled home in need of my mother. My heart beat so hard that I was sure it would bounce the silver viper fang right off the chain around my neck, but instead the metal just grew warm against my skin and I sprinted up the high road toward our small house on the edge of town.

She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. Of all the things to be doing, did she have to be baking? The round loaves rising in the sun reminded me of the baker’s shop window, and how he’d be looking out of it in just a few hours, expecting his son to come rounding down the street. My face drained, white as the flour on her hands.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” She asked. “What happened by the river?”

“Stephan—” I stuttered.

“I thought you were going to stay away from him,” she said, turning back to her baking. “He’s a nasty boy and a bully.”

“But Mamma—”

“What, Axiom?”

“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do anything. He just — he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace, like the ground had just swallowed him up.”

The viper fang was hot against my skin. Mamma’s kneading stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“Stephan called me a freak, and then all of a sudden all these bugs just came up and…and…and ate him.”

She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look angry, either. Instead, she just looked at the colorful scarf I had wrapped around my neck. The one I had gotten two weeks earlier at my thirteenth birthday party from the Man with the Diamond Shoes.

“Right,” she said. “Go rinse off your legs change your dress — you’re muddy all over. We have an errand to run.”

An hour later, the bread was left to rise and we were walking down the high road. I was sure that we were heading back to the scene of Stephan’s demise so my mother could inspect it for herself. Maybe she would use some of those strange elven powers her sister crowed about to find out what exactly had happened and why.

But when we got to the top of the riverbank, Mamma didn’t ask which way we should go. Instead, she firmly took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where Stephan had been torturing fish — past the bridge that acted as a boundary for where I was allowed to play, and into a wide bog dotted with stepping stones.

I put a foot out to step onto the first one, but Mamma yanked me back by my dress. She put her finger to her lips before turning to the bog and yelling: “Hanso Jon! Cretia Lilliput Thorne and her daughter seek your wisdom!”

The stones before us sank, and the bog’s surface crested and rippled as they reassembled into a straight walking path toward an island that had started to rise. My mother stepped out before me, leading the way down the path.

When we arrived at our destination, I turned back to see that the stones had sunk and scattered again. By the time I redirected my attention to my mother, she had cleared a chunk of moss from the center of the island to reveal a latch. Her housework-strong arms had no trouble lifting the trapdoor up, and she nodded her head toward the stairs.

“Watch your step,” she said.

Our half-elf dark vision lit the way as we inched down a flight of stairs and landed in a world all its own. Although I knew we were under the bog, there was a night sky above us, peppered with stars that glimmered. The stairs behind us had disappeared, too, so that we stood in the middle of a field, the breeze gently blowing the smell of imminent rain, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh cut grass clippings into our faces.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Somewhere I never thought I’d have to come again,” Mamma said, and she set down the path toward a house that looked suspiciously like our own.

The door opened before we knocked, though no one stood there. My mother led me inside, and we found ourselves staring at the presumable owner. She was tall — not yet stooped with age, though her hair was white and wispy, and her skin was like a piece of the crinkled sepia paper the butcher used to wrap meat.

“Cretia Lilliput, as I live and wheeze,” the woman said with a strong chuckle that turned into a dry cough. “Never thought I’d see your face in the Underbog again. What is it this time? Has he left you yet?”

I turned to my mother, but her face was stone.

“He left a long time, Hanso Jon. But you already knew that. Just like you know I’m here because of my daughter.” Her hand gripped my shoulder. It was warm in temperature, but not in emotion.

“A little Lilliput!” Hanso squealed. “Well let me look at you properly, my girl!” My mother pushed me forward a little into the light as the old woman scanned me. “Eyes and hair like your mother, but a willowy build like your father, if I recall correctly.”

Without warning, she swooped in on me and pressed her hands to the sides of my head. My vision compressed, then expanded into a memory of my father letting me chase him on my three-year-old stubby legs along the river; a flash of my mother crying next to an empty bed; Ansel smiling, his eyes squinting in the sun; then the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes as he unwrapped the scarf and began to bleed from the gash in his neck.

“Ah,” Hanso said, pulling away. “I see. Tea, anyone?”

I hardly thought it was time for tea, but my mother didn’t object. We sat at the small wooden table in the corner as Hanso brought a tray over from the kitchen. Three china cups filled with pungent peach tea were already steaming on it.

“I know how much you like peach,” she turned to me. “This is my own special concoction.” I looked to my mother for her permission to drink and watched her lift her own cup to her mouth.

“So tell me about your birthday present,” Hanso said, nodding to the scarf. “It seems someone very powerful gave it to you.”

My eyes glanced at my mother, but something strange had happened: She was frozen in place, holding her tea millimeter away from her lips.

“She can’t hear you,” Hanso said with a wave. “And she won’t know we had this little discussion. So who’s the man with the bleeding neck? And why on earth did you think it was a good idea to take a gift he offered? I know you don’t come from smart stock, but even an idiot knows not to trust a man who’s clearly lost his head once or twice.”

It was hard to hold all the information in my head, so I just answered with a shrug while I tried to sort through everything I had learned since stepping foot outside the bog.

“Well, next time you should be a little smarter,” the woman said, sipping her own tea. “So just tell me — how do you know him?”

“He’s a magician in our village,” I said. “He does tricks like change the color of fire and make water taste like vinegar and nectar and stuff.”

“A charlatan act, surely,” Hanso said. “I can do that, too, but you don’t see me scrounging for gold on the streets with it. Watch.” She flicked a finger at my tea, and the smell shifted to tangy pomegranate. “So you know him from the village. What does he know about you?”

That I liked his scarf, I thought. That I didn’t mind talking to strangers, and sometimes I talked too much. That I felt belittled by the baker’s boy, and that I was about to turn 13 and felt like I should be considered far more grown up by now, especially since I towered over the other kids in the village.

I didn’t need to tell her any of this, though. She nodded like she had read my thoughts.

“Now what about the boy I saw smiling in your head?”

“Ansel?” I coughed on the pomegranate tea. “He’s just a boy.” A wonderful boy, I thought, and I’m sure she read that, too.

“Like mother, like daughter,” she sighed. “Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about beautiful boys. They’re only there for a meal, and once they get tired of your flavor, they go to find somewhere else to eat. And not even magic can fix that — just ask your mother.

“Speaking of which,” she said, and Mamma suddenly animated again.

“It appears that scarf around Little Lilliput’s neck has more than couture qualities,” Hanso said. “Do you mind if I examine it?”

I hadn’t removed it from around my neck — not at bed, not during baths — because I feared that my own neck would start to gush blood. But now that we were in the presence of a true sorceress (at least, I thought so), I felt safe to try it. Slowly I pulled it away, feeling the coolness of the house hit my skin.

“Yes, hand it here,” Hanso commanded, and I placed it like a large snake across her arms.

As the material touched her bare hands, the wrinkles in her face deepened; the creases caved in. The light draft inside the house blew her hair away like cotton off a dandelion, and she fell backward into the chair, shrinking until her chin was level with the tabletop. My mother gasped and reached for the scarf. Afraid of what the material could do to her, I pulled her back.

“It might hurt you too!” I yelled, taking it away from the mummy now sitting at the table. As I pulled it away, I saw that it had gotten longer — a thick stripe of metallic bronze knitting had affixed to the end.

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…

Scene of the write: Flight to a viral zone

Every passenger walked on with a TSA-approved packet of Clorox wipes and as many 3.4-liter containers of hand sanitizer they could fit in a quart-sized ziplock. Stand too close to someone and they’re a cleared throat away from punching you in the mouth before finishing their march up the aisle to their assigned seat — any one but the middle one. In fact, almost every middle seat is empty on this United flight to Seattle-Tacoma. When was the last time you could say that?

The same tray tables they once leaned their arms and head on as they snoozed; the same entertainment screens they tapped, hypnotized by the amount of movies and TV options they weren’t interested in; the same buttons they used to lean their seat back or call a flight attendant — they’re now dripping in disinfectant, and still off-limits.

Every cough that was once merely annoying is now a death threat. Every sneeze is eyed with suspicion. “If I wake up dead, it’ll be your fault,” you can hear people think as you sniffle, try not to touch your face. Wait, is my throat suddenly scratchy? Is my head getting hot? Or is it just because I haven’t taken off the three layers of clothing that are guarding me against a certain demise?

Flight attendants gingerly hand over full cans of soda so as not to contaminate the top, but it doesn’t stop people from spit-shining the rim before cracking one open. Better the germs you know, right?

Four and three-quarter hours later, we land in the viral zone. Another person has died since we took off, and the terminal is empty for a Tuesday at 7 p.m. A handful of mask-wearing employees hustle past with an older woman in a wheelchair. And then I see it: The true sign that Armageddon is upon us, and that I’ve landed at Ground Zero for humankind’s extinction.

The Starbucks is closed.

Music of the Write: Top 5 Songs of 2019

Short entry this week to make room for my longer piece next week. This year I listened to a lot of music, discovered myriad new artists, and wrote a ton while doing both. Check out the top songs I found helped the words fall out this year:

*Note that these are songs I found this year, not necessarily released in 2019.

1. “Blood // Water” by grandson.

Call this the biggest find of the year: Jordan Edward Benjamin, aka “grandson.” “Blood // Water” isn’t my favorite of the political chainsaw rock-tronic he produces, but it resulted in the final action scene of Nobody’s Hero and acts as soundtrack to our Dungeons & Dragons Byssia campaign.

2. “Prophet” by King Princess

To be fair, King Princess’ entire Cheap Queen album was a lifesaver this year. While Lizzo’s music is killer for an explosive breakup, King Princess explores the other kind: those that fizzle out so slowly that no one notices until something extraneous happens that puts things into perspective. “Prophet” made this list because I recently added it to the playlist for a book I’ve struggled to write for seven years now — maybe 2020 will be the year I find inspiration thanks to Mikaela Mullaney Straus.

3. “Succession Main Theme” by Nicholas Britell

Find me one writer who didn’t become obsessed with Britell’s score for HBO’s dynastic drama. Seriously, I fell in love with Succession‘s theme before I saw a single episode of the show. With string blasts akin to Junkie XL’s “The Red Capes Are Coming” from Batman vs. Superman, the show’s theme is the perfect march for a pissed-off protagonist or acid-minded enemy (both of which you’ll find in the Roy family).

4. “All for Us” by Zendaya

Another HBO show find, this one pairing Labrinth with Zendaya for the song that ends Euphoria‘s first season. That show is a treasure trove of tune, including one of the first major uses of Billie Eilish and “Bubblin’,” an Anderson .paak bop that almost made this list. But “All for Us” comes packed with genre-crossing drama: soundboard aesthetics, Zendaya’s silky-to-raw vocal range, and a heart-stopping choir that carries everything on its shoulders.

5. “Honky Cat” by Elton John

“Honky Cat” was always a song that existed, but not one that I put much thought behind until hearing it in a new light in June as part of Rocketman. Everything about it is Elton, who was one of the first voices I recognized on the radio (my favorite song at age 4 was “Crocodile Rock”), and since then has been an enticing enigma of a person who finds a way to surprise me every year when I find another song from his library. Last year’s Elton Discovery was “All the Girls Love Alice,” and 2017 was “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” With seats at his Chicago show in June, who knows what 2020 will bring?

Honorable mentions: “bellyache” by Billie Eilish, “The Chain” by The Highwomen, “Every Time I Hear That Song” by Brandi Carlile, “Pretty and Afraid” by Jidenna, “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey, “I Love Me” by Nikki Lynette, “Standards” by Leslie Odom Jr.

What songs inspired you this year?

Excerpt: The Gladstone Gala

The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson Dior evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once bruised her collarbone. Lilah contended the twice-weekly Pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

They walked the red carpet, which was attended by a cadre of camera-wielding local press, and smiled and waved like they told all their clients to do at these kinds of things. Pru suspected that’s why they loved the Gala so much: It was their turn to be the show. Pru didn’t care as much, but this evening was different. She was going to be the show whether she wanted to be or not, so she might as well lean into it.

When she stepped out of the black town car she had hired, she heard a gasp from Amy Charles, the fashion columnist for Centropolis Weekly.

“Pru, who are you wearing?” she yelled.

“The last person who asked me that,” Pru snapped back.

In truth, she was wearing Foster Updike’s first red carpet fashion, and if the crowd reaction and her own style sense told her anything, he could have a fallback career if engineering for a vigilante was no longer an option. Using the long black train of her gala dress from three years previous, he had created a hostess coat that fanned out behind her and showed off the stunning metallic black leggings underneath. It magnetically snapped together in the front to hide her chest plate, and its sleeves covered the utility arm-guards she knew she’d need.

But when she turned around, everyone got the real show. On the back of the coat’s skirt was the brilliant turquoise Nightfire flame that seemed to glow in the light. In reality, it sort of did — Foster had coated the blue fabric (sourced from another year’s dress) with a flexible phosphorescent finish that created a holographic effect. If anyone was still unclear who she was in the PR world, this would set them straight.

When she got to the entrance of the gala hall, Lilah raised an eyebrow, made a comment about not knowing 1950s fashion was back in vogue, and eventually threw her hands up with an admission that “It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.” Her father said nothing but at least acknowledged her with a nod before escorting her mother toward their other guests.

Dinner at the gala always seemed to take forever, and this year was no exception. It especially didn’t help that the Gladstone Foundation’s event planning team received a barrage of complaints from attendees after last year when it decided the salade nicoise would already be plated and waiting for each guest when they entered the dining room. The logic was sound — Pru had seen how so many of the guests had stumbled in from the cocktail reception in search of bread baskets and more booze — but their donors, many of whom distrusted any kind of produce they couldn’t ensure was organic-grown, weren’t pleased at the prospect of eating anything they suspected of being room temperature (unless it was a draught of scotch).

So this year, each course came out in the hands of white-jacketed waiters, and at what seemed like a glacial pace. Pru kept glancing at her phone to check the time, at one point incurring her mother’s hand pushing it down into her lap.

“The work is here, Pru,” she whispered.

He wasn’t yet, but he would be in three hours, Pru thought.

Darin still hadn’t spoken, though smiling for the cameras and cordially offering one arm to his wife and the other to his daughter hadn’t taken much verbal commitment. Throughout dinner he pushed his salad around his plate, hoping no one — meaning everyone — would notice that for the fourth year in a row, the Gladstone Gala planning team had forgotten his biological intolerance for eggs and psychological intolerance for olives that weren’t soaked in gin or vodka.

Once the little sandcastles of chocolate mouse and raspberry sauce had been delivered to the tables, the dancing started and, more importantly, the open bar resumed operation. Knowing his audience was mostly older donors wealthy enough to pay people to make them feel young, the DJ stuck to playing electro-swing that balanced swelling horns and deep base. A few overly tan, freshly Touch-of-Grayed men entrenched in mid- to late-life crises swung their 20- and 30-something wives around the dance floor, pulling foxtrot and bossanova moves while their partners peppered in body rolls and a bit of grinding here and there. Darin and Lilah Mornay avoided the dancing entirely, preferring Tanqueray to the tango.

Pru, meanwhile, had excused herself to the ladies’ room, where she knew there was a couch she could crash on to reset her mind in the moments before Flashbang was due to arrive. Unfortunately, the pink velvet settee she remembered from galas before was already claimed by an unconscious woman with what looked to be a Cosmopolitan soaking the front of her dress.

“It’s not even nine o’clock,” Pru said in disbelief.

“She saw her ex-husband making out with his new girlfriend in the back hall and decided to drown her sorrows,” said a tall woman reapplying her lipstick in the mirror. “Don’t worry: We already called a medic.”

The Gladstone Gala wasn’t the Gladstone Gala without at least four people needing medical attention. The first time Pru had attended, Portia Abrams and Kaitlyn Ducker’s rivalry hit a fever pitch and resulted in acrylic-nailed slaps being thrown, blood spattering on Yves Saint Laurent gowns, and a clump of hair extensions flying into Lilah Mornay’s martini glass. Portia still had a scar on her wrist that she covered with a thick diamond bracelet purchased with the settlement money.

On cue, two women wearing navy blue t-shirts and carrying medical bags entered the bathroom and immediately started taking the unconscious woman’s vitals. They lifted her up and she groaned, muttering something about a dirty bastard who could never get it up.

“Ma’am, we’re going to get you some help,” one of the medics said. “Can you stand?”

As they started to leave the bathroom, the drunk woman starting to talk louder now about her limp-dick ex-husband and his Playboy Bunny bitch. Pru and the tall woman with fresh lipstick could hear her shouting through the door and both started laughing.

“And to think this thing is a charity event,” Pru muttered, mostly to herself.

“Lifestyles of the rich and generous,” the woman said. “Maybe they think being philanthropists is enough to excuse the rest of their behavior.”

“You should have been here last year,” Pru said, inspecting the couch for potential vomit. It was clean, so she plopped down and swung her feet out, stretching her legs. “Paulie Ferguson literally pushed the DJ off the stage and did a 20-minute set of deep-cut B-52 tracks.”

“Sounds entertaining.”

“Truth be told, it was better than what the DJ was playing,” Pru shrugged. “If they had let him get to ‘Love Shack,’ it might actually have been a fun party.”

“That’s saying something,” the woman said, taking a seat in one of the straight-backed armchairs across from the couch. Something about the woman seemed so familiar to Pru, but she couldn’t place it—then again, upscale fashion, professionally applied makeup, and hairspray-shellacked updos made it hard to recognize pretty much anyone in the room. “You don’t seem the type to be at these kinds of things,” she continued. “Is it the people watching that brings you here?”

“I prefer the term ‘social observation,’ and it’s more a survival tactic than my idea of a fun Saturday night out.”

“What, did your husband drag you here or something?”

“Parents,” Pru said. “They come every year because so many of their clients are here. On top of having their own plus-ones, every year they get asked by at least eight people or companies to come as their guests. It’s a whole political strategy meeting for them to decide who’s going with whom. Now that I’m with the firm, they have a third player to throw in the game.”

“Lucky you,” the woman smirked. “Who are your parents?”

“Darin and Lilah Mornay,” Pru said, unsure of why. She didn’t like disclosing her lineage to strangers in case they were disdainful of the Mornays’ work or, worse, big fans.

“How did I not recognize you?!” the woman half-shrieked, throwing a hand dramatically to her forehead. “I can’t believe this coincidence. I’ve been trying to reach you for three weeks!”

Fuck, Pru thought. Instead, she just smiled in a way that said “Fuck.”

“I won’t talk shop tonight,” the woman said. “But my name is Constance Lin, and I’m with the Centropolis Sentinel. They sent me here to cover the gala, but I usually cover the Crime and Vigilante beat.”

Now Pru knew where she had seen this woman before. She was the one who had brought up Flashbang’s memo at the press conference three weeks ago. She had also been the one to ambush her outside the FVA with questions about Opal’s background.

“I want to talk about Flashbang’s last appearance,” Constance said, her voice quickening. Pru tried to detect the smell of alcohol on her breath — her demeanor was so different from when she was in the press pool. “Any chance we could get out of here and talk about it?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be covering the gala?” Pru said, eyeing the large clock hanging on the opposite wall. There were fewer than five minutes before Flashbang was due to meet her in the sculpture garden. “You probably shouldn’t abandon your assignment.”

“This is more important,” Constance said. “The gala is a couple ‘graphs on rich people and how much money they raised as an excuse to guzzle champagne and punch each other out on the dance floor.”

“Fair enough,” Pru said, unable to argue with the reporter’s assessment after she herself had just confirmed most of it through sardonic nostalgia. “But I can’t leave yet, so let’s plan on talking next week sometime. I’ll give you my card.”

Her fingers reflexively slipped a card out of one of her hostess coat’s pockets and handed it to Constance.

“Call me when you get out of here and leave me a message,” she said. “We’ll set something up for Tuesday or Wednesday, Candace.”

“It’s Constance,” the reporter called after her as Pru bolted from the bathroom and went to blend in with the drinking, dancing, check-signing throng.

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?

A farewell love letter written in tears and Lysol

This morning I decided to clean. I do that when I’m trying to force myself to think about things — the book I’m writing, a problem at work, what to get so-and-so for their birthday. Today it was so I could examine all of last night’s feelings now wadded up in tissues layered three-deep inside the bathroom garbage can.

The shallow layer is the fear most late-20s women fear when they find themselves having to start from scratch in finding a partner. I blame my ovaries and ticking biological clock for this one: I will be fine. My creative spirit, work ethic, long-term happiness, emotional strength, relationships, and passions will soon stand up and dust themselves off. My primal reproduction function does not believe this is important and is a finger away from dialing up a sperm bank.

Under that is betrayal: When simplifying it to the very basic core of everything, you lied to me. You let me carry on like there was nothing wrong, and you didn’t trust me enough to tell me we didn’t have a future. For a year you let me continue to fall in love with you, and never once did you warn me that my descent would end in a crash of two emails, two phone calls, and a weepy ramen noodle dinner.

And within the deepest layer lies self-anger, because in truth you didn’t lie, not even once. You told me everything from the beginning, and I refused to hear it. You told me the first night you came home with me. You took off your shirt and explained every beautiful tattoo on your skin and challenging tattoo on your soul. And then you kissed me, and I saw stars, and then we fell asleep in a cider-drunk haze before waking up to a mid-March snowstorm that failed to cool us off from one another. The next morning, and the next year, I convinced myself that if I couldn’t change your past, I could at least make your future a bit brighter.

You said I helped get you to this place you’re in now, where you’ve learned to slowly light the lamps of recovery and discovery so the dark shrinks into something less dreadful. And that’s when I learned my mistake. For the last year I’ve tried to torch the darkness, burn it all to the ground, and singed myself in the process because that’s not how it works. It has to be you wielding the matchbook, and it has to be methodical, or else you could disappear into the flames, rather than emerge in the light. If I stand around and watch, I’ll only get in your way. I love you too much to do that.

As I scrub down my dining table with Lysol, I notice that another puddle has appeared in the northwest corner of my apartment. The tenants upstairs must have left their windows open again during a rainstorm. The last time this happened, I asked the landlord to repair where the speckled plaster had crumbled, and he did. Except now that replacement plaster is on the floor in varying states of dust and chunks that I have to sweep up and add to the trash can.

Shattered plaster. Crumpled up tissues. They all look the same — not quite white, but trying to be. All the emotions that gushed out of my eyes and nose the night before, mixed with the broken shell of where I tried to secure you in my heart, convinced you’d find the light you needed inside.

That broken shell doesn’t mean you’ve left, though. You’ve just moved somewhere else inside it, and it’s going to take me some time to find you again. I’ll keep looking, but first I have some cleaning to do.