Excerpt: Agatha’s apartment

The apartment yawned stale, sunbaked air in our faces as the maintenance man unlocked the door and swung it open.

“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked. In the dim glow of the hall light I could read the embroidered script on his work shirt: “Chuck.” I didn’t even know there were people under 50 named Chuck anymore.

“She was home when I had to fix the smoke detector last month,” Chuck said. “It kept going off in the middle of the night, waking everyone up on the floor.”

Adam handed him the thrice-folded $20 as he passed him on his way across the threshold as a thank you, and Chuck got the hint that it was also to guarantee privacy for our investigation.

“I’ll wait downstairs for you so I know when to lock up,” he said, leaving us to explore alone.

From the entrance, Agatha’s apartment looked like the typical 20-something writer’s studio, with style taking a backseat to convenience. Three mismatched pressboard bookshelves groaned under paperbacks and stacks of Vanity Fair, Wired, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Ms., Bitch, and Fast Company back issues. Her vinyl couch had likely been assembled with an Allen wrench that came with it in the IKEA box. A mattress and box spring was jammed like an afterthought into the corner and covered in a faded kaleidoscope duvet cover, sans duvet inside. A plate, red wine glass, skillet and wooden spoon collected dust on a drainboard, and the refrigerator hummed under a layer of half-formed grocery lists and someday-I’ll-need-it business cards.

“You must have really made out in the divorce agreement,” I said to Adam. “Or did you just get all the good furniture?”

“We didn’t have any ‘good furniture,'” Adam replied shortly, continuing his way into the apartment.

Walking in behind him, I felt like I was easing myself into a bubble bath drawn with ice water. The small studio looked like it belonged to an ambitious 20-something writer, but as I submerged deeper into the apartment, it became clear that before her disappearance, Agatha had been descending into a chaotic obsession.

The notes on the fridge weren’t grocery lists: They were seemingly unrelated words and phrases that formed a cloud passing from the fridge, across the backsplash, around the corner and filling the wall above a desk that looked to have been rescued from a curb on garbage day. There were no webs of string, no highlighted portions like the conspiracy walls in the movies, and this perhaps made it more ominous: Agatha didn’t need to connect these things visually because either she was able to keep them straight in her own head, or because there was really no reasoning to why she had written “Caravan” and “chauffeur’s daughter” in the blank spaces of a Chinese takeout menu, then pinned it next to a torn green Post-it listing “Burt’s Bees / KIND bars / fire plug on Hollyhock Lane.”

“Did she used to do this when you were together?” I asked Adam.

He shook his head, mouth agape at his ex-wife’s handwriting scrawling across the scratch-paper wallpaper.

“Sometimes she’d start a notebook, use about five pages of it, then put it in a box and start a new one,” he said absentmindedly as his eyes flitted from note to note. “Always said it was the creative in her and that lots of writers did that. The only book she’d actually fill up was her—”

Adam stopped and looked at the desk. It was covered in mail (both open and sealed), receipts, packing slips, a set of knit gloves likely left there since last winter, and more notes like the ones on the wall. And that was just the top layer of the bric-a-brac cluttering it.

“She kept a journal,” Adam said. “Not every day, but she’d fill it up in a year and need a new one. I’d usually get her something nice for Christmas — leather-bound, or hardback — but she’d always pick up a composition notebook from Target or something. Said there was less pressure to be perfect that way.”

He started shuffling the papers on the desk like playing cards, stacking them and lifting them and gently placing them on the floor. More little notes slid on unseen air drafts, yelling “MORE COBWEBS!” or matter-of-factly stating “Ranch = spirits from 1960s.”

As he meticulously shuffled through Agatha’s desk contents, I began to wander the rest of the tiny apartment. One of her dresser drawers was ajar, and I slid it open, slowly as if hoping Agatha wouldn’t notice — which was silly, of course, as she wasn’t there.

Nothing seemed to be missing inside the drawer: Rather, it was hard to tell if anything was out of place, as the entire thing was filled with sloppily folded T-shirts and sweaters. Close to the top was the green argyle pullover she’d been wearing the day she came to tell me about meeting someone at a housewarming who would make a great story. My stomach flipped at the thought that if I had just said “no,” I wouldn’t be bribing her maintenance man to let me and her ex-husband into her apartment so we could figure out what happened to her.

“Hey, I found something,” Adam said. I turned around to see him holding not a composition notebook but one of the flip-top reporting notebooks we stocked in Deus Ex Machina‘s office supply room. “Doesn’t look like her journal, but the notes in this are a lot more coherent than the ones on the wall. And there’s a whole drawer of them, look.”

Excerpt: The housewarming

Tonight was Meera’s housewarming party. Ended up going straight from work, so I had to drag my whole computer bag with me. Stopped at Mariano’s on the way to the train to pick up a bottle of wine — bad call, because the cheapest “nice” bottle I could find was still $17. That’ll be an extra hour of copy editing this weekend. At least I could avoid buying dinner on the way home by eating the hot appetizers they were serving.

“Someone’s got an appetite,” Meera laughed when she saw me walk into the family room with a plate full of those tiny hot dogs wearing puffer coats of corn dough. They were easier to eat than the meatballs swimming in Meera’s signature barbecue-sauce-and-grape-jelly sauce (that makes it sound bad — it’s not!).

Jake brought me a tall glass of sangria with lots of fruit floating in it. He spent five years as a public safety reporter at the reader, so he gets how it is, calculating how far your paycheck will go in terms of Chipotle burritos, city-priced beers, and hours of extra Freelance.com work.

And now here he was, married to Meera and moving into a quaint two-bedroom house with a backyard and utility room. Still not sure what Meera does, apart from dress nice for a 9-to-5 and attend monthly advocacy board meetings for a bajillion social justice organizations. Apparently it’s enough to afford a mortgage.

This was unlike any housewarming I’d been to, in that was for an actual house, not a tight studio apartment with an empty liquor cabinet to fill. And this was a spankin’ new house, too — I felt like my nose was filling with the slate-gray carpet fibers still hovering in the air. Lean against the plum accent wall and you’ll ruin the fresh paint. Suddenly drenching my plate of cocktail wieners in ketchup and mustard seemed reckless, almost daring.

The kitchen was safer. Hardwood floors don’t hold condiment stains as well as carpet, and I wouldn’t have to keep ducking out of conversations to refill my plate with tiny quiche and fruit kebabs. I found a spot leaning up against the dishwasher where I was within arms’ reach of the veggie platter that no one was touching. From here, I could watch the screen door open and close as more guests arrived to trample down the new carpet and compress the sofa cushions.

Don’t know how long I was standing there. Talked to some people. Jake’s boss seems nice. Met Meera’s mom and stepdad for probably the fourth time, though they never seem to remember me. I guess her stepbrother just left for a semester abroad in Spain and is trying to fit in. Reminded me of Adam’s stories about his disaster roommates. Funny how four years later, “Spain” just makes me think of him. Maybe because I’ve never been myself — only had his stories to associate with an entire country.

Eventually I was alone again. Front door opened, and a pretty big group came in: Two women I recognized from Jake and Meera’s wedding — one of their couple-friends, Jackie and Noreen, I think? — an older woman, and another couple that looked as out of place as I felt in this monument to suburbia.

He had the look of someone who’s recently discovered they’re attractive and is work. ing. it. Complete with the kind of strategic stubble you see on TV heroes, and the Paul Newman eyes that wouldn’t need photoshop in a magazine ad. He was dressed like every other guy at the party, jeans and and casual T-shirt just tight enough to put a hetero-approved emphasis on his fit physique. A hint of a tattoo on his bicep peaked out from under his sleeve. And, of course, a nice thick gunmetal wedding band on his left hand that caught the light as he ran a hand through a perfectly messy head of thick, partially wavy auburn hair. I’m sure every straight female in this house, married or not, was about to go home thinking about that hair.

But the woman next to him was entirely different. Clearly his wife, though she wasn’t doing anything to make that clear — not holding his hand or touching him in any way. They just fit naturally together, even though they couldn’t look more different.

She had stick-straight black hair sliced into a bob that reminded me of Charlize Theron’s Aeon Flux ‘do. She dressed on the professional side of punk, her black jeans tight and clean, with moto-pleats on the thighs. Also zippers that matched the hardware on her leather jacket, which had so many studs and spikes on the shoulders that it reminded me of a porcupine. Her lipstick was the kind of dark cherry only confident women wear, as if they don’t continuously worry their teeth aren’t white enough for it.

I didn’t know if I wanted to be her or fuck her, but one thing was certain: I needed to meet her.

Excerpt: A brief description of the Tersus

An excerpt from Magic in Flesh: A Study in Earthly Manifestation by John Fogg:

“The Tersus (from the Latin for “clean”) is a carnivorous creature that in its original form resembles a tangled mass of tentacles that entwine around a tiny void that acts as its stomach. It originates from a small quadrant known as Kushner’s Cove, a pungent area colloquially described as ‘the armpit,’ ‘the ballsack,’ or ‘the Florida’ of the Yoros Dimension.

“However, the Tersus derives its name from its behaviors, rather than its habitat. Although the timeline is murky as the waters of the swamp where it resides, we know that in very recent times the Tersus somehow gained access to a regional television station known as ‘Memorable Television’ (MeTV), possibly by picking it up via aerial signal. It was from what it saw through these signals — primarily sitcoms from the 1950s and 1960s — that it developed its sense of how humans in our dimension function.

“Based on these minimal observations, the Tersus has developed a form of camouflage that it deploys when hunting its favorite form of food: Humans. Similar to an Oblex (see p. 194: ‘Fictional adaptations of real magical creatures’) a Tersus assumes the form of whatever it eats, and the human form is possibly the most practical, or even comfortable, for it to inhabit due to humans’ size and adaptability. By appearing human, the Tersus also gains the benefit of human’s social nature, which allows it to continue coming into contact with others, essentially providing it a literal buffet. Although a Tersus can only occupy one human form at a time, it can remain in a single person’s form for up to three weeks before getting hungry again.

“How can you tell if you’re in the presence of a Tersus? Because its knowledge of its prey is limited to television programs such as The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, The Dick van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, Hazel and an occasional Happy Days episode, its concept of human habitats and behaviors is limited to those it sees in mid-20th century TV-land. It seeks to emulate the most senior, present member of the family unit, which more often than not is the maternal homemaker or housemaid figure of any of these ensemble casts.

“When in our dimension, the Tersus will reverse its pack-rat, slobbish ways in Kushner’s Cove and begin to emulate the Aunt Bea and Laura Petrie by cleaning and maintaining immaculate surroundings. Not a speck of dust or unswept floor will exist wherever a Tersus resides or hunts, which coincidentally gives it away to anyone with the right knowledge and perception. If your slovenly teenager’s room is suddenly sparkling, or your once-messy partner has recently begun obsessively vacuuming your home, you may have a Tersus on your hands.

“While the Tersus’ exact strategy concerning which types of human prey it prefers is still being researched, there are a few clear patterns already being discovered. A Tersus will not eat a magical human, as many could potentially have enough power to maintain control of their senses and actions after it has inhabited their body. It also tends to prefer devouring those with meat in their diets over those who are vegan, and appears to gravitate toward men with male-pattern baldness, Ed Hardy cologne, or anonymous social media accounts.”

About the author: John Fogg is a prominent documentarian of magical non-human creatures, specializing in carnivorous species that occupy the Dresden, Yoros, and Ishtarian dimensions. His encyclopedic studies are considered staples to magical beings, and he has has contributed to more than three hundred journals, compilations and anthologies. Fogg’s mysterious disappearance in 2013, has confounded and concerned his followers, but those closest to him hold out hope that one day he will return with knowledge of some new and exciting species.

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.

Excerpt: In need of a witch

Some people, when they leave you, take a piece of your heart to fill a hole in their own. Others take a piece, plop it into their pocket and forget it’s there when they store their coat in the closet for the summer.

Raff Manning was the kind with the rotting chunk of my heart in his parka pocket, so when I saw his name light up my phone for the first time in six months, I assumed he had been cleaning out his closet and wanted to know if I’d like it back.

Actually, the text message preview showed a single line: “Hi: been a long time. Need your…”

Need my what? The part of me that hadn’t gotten laid in half a year liked to imagine the next word was “pussy,” but even when we were buck-naked in my bed he had never been that forward. And from the fact I was, as of that morning, “terminated “with cause” from the job I had worked for more than four years, I highly doubted even Raff needed my expertise or skills — especially when my resume centered around staff analysis and succession planning.

I let the message languish on my phone while I unpacked the sad cardboard box I’d trekked home from my ex-office. Half of it was useless junk I should have left behind — the fake plant I dusted rather than watered, a Funko Pop of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, and since when did I own a hacky sack? — but it did the trick of covering up the ingredients I’d need to exact my revenge whenever I’d had enough wine to feel pissed enough to override the guilt.

So my boss believed that asshole Billingsly in the accounting department that I had forged my paid time off count, huh? I had a crumpled napkin filled with danish crumbs and a single hair that I had gotten off of my boss’ desk while he was in a meeting and a sliver of fingernail I had watched Billingsly bite off and spit out as he talked to me. There were two voided reports with both their signatures, a sample of the fern my boss walked into almost every day when he entered his office, and a scrap of loose fabric that dangled off the bottom of Billingsly’s chair. When mixed with a few of my own ingredients — ballpoint ink, dried and diced highlighter tips, Eucerin hand cream, and a skimming off the top of a cup of creamed coffee left to sit for a week — they’d both have to use all their paid time off to recover from the irritable bowel syndrome that had suddenly befallen them. Always treat your co-workers with respect, I smirked to myself: You could never tell which ones were witches.

But that project would have to wait.

The message floated there ominously, that “your…” looming like the foggy rim of a cliff: I knew a drop laid just beyond the edge, but I couldn’t be sure just how far down I’d fall.

I opened it.

“Hi: been a long time. Need your help on a job. $$. Meet at Ravish around 7?”

So it was a job, then. The same hook in my pelvis that had regrettably pulled at the thought of Raff wanting me back was now in my stomach. I never liked his line of work — found it dirty, despicable — but my last paycheck was currently in my handbag, and my half of the rent was due in a week. Magic could only get you so far, and a little cash wouldn’t hurt.

I changed out of my work slacks and button-down into my best-fitting jeans and a tank top in Raff’s favorite shade of green. As I checked to make sure I had locked the front door, I dashed off a text to Philippa letting her know that I wouldn’t be home until late. Her job at the lab kept her past 7 most nights anyway, but I didn’t need this to be the night she decided to bring home a takeout feast for us.

In her role as best-friend-and-avenger, Philippa had sworn that the minute she saw Raff again she would inject him with whatever pharmaceutical misfire she had cooked up at work. Forever my warrior, she was indefatigable in her hatred for him, despite how long they had gotten along in the two years I dated him. Philippa implored me to delete and block his number, and maybe she was right, but deep down I also knew that maybe one day I’d need his professional skills. You never knew when you’d need a bounty hunter.

Halfway to our meeting, I got a text from her asking if I was meeting with anyone she knew — she was almost done and wouldn’t mind joining us for a happy hour drink. “Friend from work,” I said. “Long story.”

After all, if this assignment was worth the trek up north, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

Walking into the bar was like stepping out of a time machine. The tables were in the same place; the bartender was the same; the TVs were even playing the same rerun of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — a naked Danny DeVito was lying face-down in a puddle of hand sanitizer. And there sat Raff, in the same black leather jacket as he’d worn the day I met him, in the same spot he always sat in at the bar, and with a can of the same milk stout he always ordered when we came here.

I had avoided Ravish since the breakup. I didn’t want to have to answer the bartender when she asked where he was, as she was accustomed to seeing us at least once a week. I didn’t want to stare at the same wall of drawn-on dollar bills that I’d stare at when his eyes got too intense while we dissected whatever movie we’d just seen across the street. And yet here I was, walking in to act as if six months hadn’t passed.

Just to be safe, I took the stool on the right side of him, rather than on his left like I had all those times before.

“You look—” his eyes fluttered up to my hairline. While debating how much vengeful cleavage to display, I had totally forgotten that in the month following our breakup, I had chopped my hair into a punky little pixie and dyed it a luscious aubergine, then crimson, then green. I had recently experimented with turquoise. “Nice hair.”

“Thanks,” I said, running a hand just over the pompadoured front. “Thought I’d change it up.”

“Well now it’s like old times,” the bartender came over — same butterfly tattoo on her wrist, same nose ring. “Loving the hair! What can I get for you, babe?”

“Whatever Three Floyds is on tap,” I smiled at her.

“And I’ll take another one of these,” Raff said, lifting what turned out to be a near-empty can that he easily crushed in his fist.

“Sure thing,” she said. She had been privy to every thought we had in the early days when we clung so hard to each other’s sentences that we lost all grip on time, and now she was trying to determine if this was a date or detente.

“You shotgun the first one?” I asked, nodding at the crinkled can.

“Got here early.” It was like old times, I thought.

I watched the amber slosh into the pint glass as I waited for Raff to start talking. By the time the foam had started to crest the top of the glass, I had grown impatient.

“So this job?” I prompted him, smiling in thanks as the bartender placed the glass in front of me.

“I need some information from you.”

“Raff,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted the draught to my lips. A brief touch to my lips and I knew the strawberry-tinged hops flavor immediately: Zombie Dust, the first beer I’d had here. Nostalgia really had to bust my ass today, didn’t it? “If this this about Spencer, you can forget it. I don’t know what he’s up to; I don’t know where he is; and even if I did know, I would sure as fuck not tell you.”

“It’s not like that,” Raff said, tapping his nail on top of the fresh stout can in front of him. He once said it was to keep it from foaming over the top when you cracked it open, but now I realized it was likely just a compulsive ritual for him. “It’s nothing to do with your brother.”

Step-brother,” I corrected him. Spencer and I were never close, but on the scale of who was annoying me most right now, he was far from where Raff sat, which granted the amateur fireworks maker and trafficker amnesty in my head.

Raff opened the beer can and took a tentative sip. His eyes flitted to my hair with every blink.

“I really do like it, actually,” he said, as if admitting something to himself more than to me.

“What’s the job, Raff?” I needed to refocus so my face wouldn’t go pink.

“Have a bit more beer before I tell you,” he said.

I knocked my glass back hard, sloshing more than a sip or two down my front as I chugged half of it down. Even though I closed my eyes, I could still see this place on the night of our first date, when we had stayed talking at this bar until they closed. Him in that leather jacket, smelling of paper and pepper, and not only enthusiastically talking about his life, but also enthusiastically listening to me talk about my own.

Half the beer gone and my stomach roiling in discomfort, I put the glass down.

“Now?”

Raff chuckled. “OK, here’s the gig. There’s a guy up in Edgewater who’s been fencing stolen cars, and I’ve been monitoring his place all week so I can bring him in. Except I’m not the first one to try it. I’ve seen pairs of cops show up almost every day, warrant in hand, marching up to the house looking like they mean business. They go inside, and they come out looking like they’ve just had lemonade and cookies out on the back porch with the guy.”

“Maybe they are,” I shrugged. “Cops can be dirty, you know.”

“If he’s got this many cops as pals, how’d they ever get a warrant approved in the first place? Nah, something witchy is going on here.”

I twinged at the word and took another sip of beer to clear the bitter taste in the back of my throat before I spoke.

“So that’s why you need me. To do something ‘witchy’ back.”

“No,” he said, almost too quickly. “I just need you to come to the house with me so we can see what he’s got going on out there. If I know what I’m up against, I might stand a shot at getting him into custody.”

One more tip back, and my beer was nothing but suds sliding down the side of the glass.

“How much?”

“I’ll give you $600 if you come with me right now.”

That would be almost all my rent this month, and while the thought of helping Raff with his greasy bounty hunter assignment made me want to immediately take a shower, I also needed that $600 to afford the running hot water. But I wasn’t about to let my ex know I was that financially distressed, so I ran my finger around the rim of my pint glass as I smiled coyly.

“You must be desperately in need of a witch,” I said, turning my head around to see if I could find the bartender to order another pint. I didn’t want to leave yet. He’d likely walk out with me, and I’d be forced to remember in stereo the first night we left here together and he kissed me on the sidewalk outside, and the last night we left together and he told me it was over on the same patch of pavement.

At the word “witch” his eyes flashed cautiously toward the bartender, who had just reappeared behind the bar to ring in a kitchen order.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “She’s one, too, you know.”

“Serious? How do you know?”

“Witchy-sense,” I said sarcastically, adding a particularly exaggerated jerk-off motion. The truth was I had seen her add a little something to a drink if it was headed toward a particularly awful customer: whether it was to loosen their wallets or slam shut their sphincters, I didn’t know. Maybe both. “You seriously can’t tell? She must be better at hiding it from you dim people.”

“You know, ‘dim’ isn’t exactly an endearment.”

“In your case, no,” I said. “You didn’t figure me out for upwards of two years.”

He took another sip from his beer to avoid responding, but I could see his neck flush with embarrassment.

“I moved in with Philippa, by the way. She had an extra room in that brownstone she inherited from her grandma. We’re very happy and have satisfying casual sex with each other every night, in case you were wondering. I think we might take the next step and adopt a hamster next week.”

This made him crack a smile.

“Are you still living with Benjamin and Theo?”

“Yep, though the band’s long finished. We posted that music video on Youtube and got laughed off the internet.”

It didn’t take any prophesy potions to know that that was going to happen. I had seen the storyboards for their project, and it was laughable even on paper.

“They miss having you around, though,” he said quietly. “Didn’t get off my back for weeks after we broke up.”

“Was it really because of the witch thing?” I asked, figuring that I might as well put it out there now before we decided to try to haul in a car thief together. The beer had loosened me up enough to decide I’d rather regret things I said than things I didn’t say.

“Maybe,” he shrugged. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, Sylvie. I think it was just our time to end.”

He hadn’t called me Sylvie since the height of our romance: Otherwise it had always been “Sy” or the dreaded “Sylvia.” I had no intention of starting over with him — six months had been enough time to brew and drink the right potions to detox him out of my system — but I didn’t mind him hoping this misadventure would bring us back together. Maybe we’d get through this together without going for each other’s throats, after all.

As long as he never put two-and-two together and realized that he stopped loving me shortly after he shaved all his hair off for that damn music video.

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.