Is this a reboot, a remake or a sequel?

Yesterday at about 3:45 p.m. Central, I had the sudden urge to get to the water.

I can’t explain it: I usually avoid the Lake Michigan beaches like the plague, even in times that aren’t a plague. Call it residual hesitancy from a childhood where summer night news reports would announce that the fecal matter count was creeping up toward unsafe levels (because there’s a safe level?).

A 25-minute walk later, and I was back on the path that I used to run in pre-COVID days, staring out at the water:

Thursday afternoons in September are clearly a great time to go sit by the fickly fecal-infested lake.

Never before have I had such an intense need to get to this view before, and I still don’t know what drew me to it. If we’re being honest, the past 24 hours had been wrought with some personal drama and much-necessary self-reflection, none of which I feel like boring you with #onhere. Maybe it was an innate need to exhale all the drama and angst over Lake Michigan so that the breeze would carry it over to Indiana while I went back home to rewatch Oceans Thirteen only to realize I had actually never seen it and, two hours later, that who I thought was a budget Al Pacino actually was Al Pacino.

That’s just a snapshot of yesterday, and I don’t know why I decided to open with it on this post, apart from how it gave me an hour of a walk to think about how it was Thursday and another Friday was about to pass without me publishing anything to Convincing the Muse, making it nine weeks since my last substantive post.

I could lie and say I’ve been absent because I was reassessing what this blog is and why I contribute creative blood, sweat and tears to it for little in return. I could also lie and say it’s because I’ve been busy with a summer that I overfilled due to an already underdeveloped sense of mortality stunted even further by two jabs of Pfizer and the promise of a booster shot.

But I refuse to lie, and that’s why I’m not using this post to make any promises about a return to weekly Friday posts, or more substantive short stories, or constant NaNoWriMo updates come November. You might see more personal pieces a la Sara Benincasa or Samantha Irby (my new favorite essayist — please pick up her books ASAP). Maybe some updates on my newfound vim and vigor around querying Omaha. More Axiom Thorne entries from our now two-years-and-running D&D campaign, found fiction from the annals of my high school creative writing notebooks, and book and music recommendations.

Or maybe I just won’t post anything until after my sister’s wedding in two weeks because do you know how crazy wedding planning is, even when you’re merely the maid of honor and the bachelorette party has already been a success?

Maybe my 115 or so followers will unsubscribe from those WordPress email alerts. Maybe I’ll successfully kill this website by the end of the year and be out the 18 bucks I put down in July to renew the domain name. Maybe these posts will give my boyfriend a chuckle (and that’s worth it, honestly) or a fellow writer an idea for a story (go for it, fam) or the NSA something else to put in my file (eat my Google search dust, feds). Possibly all of the above, come to think of it.

Pitter-patter, let’s get at ’er.

Axiom Thorne: Portrait of a Lady Unraveling

Axiom Thorne is tall and wiry, with skin the color of whole milk that’s been warmed over a slow fire, then forgotten on the bedside table. Her white-blond tresses hang like teaser curtains around her angular face, obscuring it when she doesn’t feel like letting you see her long, thin nose, or her sharp jaw, or the fear creases that whisper across her forehead like stray hairs.

When you do get to see her face, the first thing you see is the dark black makeup streaking her eyes and the irises that cut through it like emeralds half-buried in soot. Her lips, also painted black, curl into a smirk more often than a smile. She inherited her mother’s elven ears and her father’s humanly sardonic wit.

Stick around and she might shift her hair all the way back behind her shoulders with long bony fingers that poke out of black leather gauntlets. She uses her mother’s “parlor magic” — as her nasty aunt would scoff — to add a shimmering holographic affect to chunks of her locks so that they reflect the light in ever-changing pink, blue, green, silver, back to pink flashes.

When she first boarded the Tenacious Sea with the others, she wore a runaway’s uniform: Dark tunic belted at the waist over nondescript breeches tucked into sensible boots. Since then, she’s been gifted far more fitting regalia for a future deity of the dead. A crown of vipers’ fangs sits precariously atop her head, a proud change from the hood she once used to shroud herself. Shiny black snakeskins knit and fuse together to create a harness and chest plate that cuts just above form-fitting pants made of the same dark scaly material. Slices of her white thighs reveal themselves between the loose weaving, invisibly protected by the armor’s magic. Stare at her new black platform boots long enough and you might see a beetle crawl up a wedged heel, over the lacing that binds around her calf, over its edge and into the safety inside of it.

The one thing Axiom has kept from her first appearance on the Tenacious Sea is also the only piece of color she deems fit to wear: A striped scarf, scrappy and uneven. Be careful not to touch it: Each color is the materialized aura of someone from whom she’s stolen magic. The scarf itself won’t taken anything from you, but it’s best not to let her or the Man with the Diamond Shoes and Gravel Voice know that you’ve taken an interest in it.

Don’t stare too long at the Whip of Certain Death at Axiom’s hip, either. Another upgrade since setting sail: It hangs in a coil not unlike the snakes that gave up their skins for her armor. And somehow it’s the mostly tightly wound item you’ll find on this woman who’s mentally unraveling all the while you’re looking at her.

Scene of the Write: Observations on a train to St. Louis

The following are observations made from a late June train trip from Chicago to St. Louis.

Just outside of Chicago: A boat graveyard, shells of old hulls and schloops tagged with graffiti inside a barbed-wire playpen. A shredded down comforter dangles from the wire, grayish-white stuffing droopy like mid-February snow drifts.

About an hour later, we’re stopped because they “have an issue on the train” they need to deal with. Anti-masker, perhaps — we just picked up some people in Joliet — but my brain is concocting a number of Mission: Impossible scenarios. Just outside the window is a country road flanked by stone pillars. The inscription is too small to read from here, but it’s fun watching as the drivers of cars are getting out and socializing while they wait for us to move out. There’s a man in a white sedan taking selfies, and a white limo with a driver dressed to the nines, taking his chances on getting out into the humid air.

On the way to Bloomington we pass a barn that looks like a drunk giant stepped into it, splintering half the roof and one wall down while the belfry still stands, weathered but intact.

Shortly after 5:15, the man sitting next to me — the one in bright green Chuck Taylor high-tops, with a copy of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that he’s halfway through, with a kid on the way and a weekend at the Cards game with some friends before he becomes a dad (all of which I learned by eavesdropping on his phone call for the first two hours of the trip) — offers me a shot of Bulleit Bourbon from a sealed bottle. I decline and watch as he proceeds to make a bourbon and coke in a thermos mug.

It’s happy hour on a Friday in the tiny towns we pass, too. A group sits in lawn chairs next to an above-ground pool in Macoupin County, a couple igloo coolers warming in the low evening sun. It makes me wonder what would be different about me if I had grown up in a town with a grain silo next door and Amtrak route cutting through my subdivision. Or if I’d be one of those people knocking back a Bud in the summer evening, watching the train from Chicago click-clack past, wondering what life would be like if I was on it.

Beta Readers Assemble: Pulling together the ultimate review team

I’m trying something new with Lucky Ellis and sending out the first half of the draft to my beta reading team before I even get my head wrapped around the second half. There are a couple reasons for this: One is that I’m hoping that once the first half is finalized — which I won’t feel it is until my trusted cabal gives input — it’ll provide an unalterable basis for the second half.

The other reason is I just need a bit of a spiritual uplift to get my energy up for writing Part Two. Hey, we’re all human. We all need our ego boost sometimes.

I don’t usually post “how to” articles on here, but this morning I found myself thinking about my beta reader team for this project and how it’s different from the project before it, which was different from the project before that, etc. So here are my tips for finding your A-team for beta reading:

1. Think about the project, not the people.

It’s really easy to fall into the trap of “she’s my best friend” or “he read the last one” or “my boss found out I write and really wants to read it now” when drafting your team. Don’t. (Unless your job might be in jeopardy if you leave your boss out, in which case maybe start looking for a different gig?)

Let the nature of the project be your guide. Did it require a lot of world-building and lore creation? Find your Game of Thrones fans and Dungeons & Dragons DMs. Is it a romance? Call on your friend who eats Harlequin paperbacks for breakfast. Did you risk getting put on a watchlist for all the dark, murdery Google searches you did? If you have any friends in the medical industry, consider asking them to take a look.

In practice, here’s what that looks like: My first book, Omaha, included a lot of neuroscientific and anatomical details, so my friend Noah, who had just concluded his neurology rotation at med school, was the first one I called upon to read it. He gave me some pointers but seemed rather disturbed at how spot-on I was in creating my speculative brain-chip-driven dystopia.

Noah didn’t read Nobody’s Hero, though. For that one, I called on Cody, who once led the Loyola University Comic Book Club and has an encyclopedic knowledge of heroes and villains across big-name and indie series. He was able to give me some pointers on how to structure Nightfire’s team and create a stronger “big bad” for the ending.

But there are a few constant draftees in my beta reading team, which brings me to no. 2:

2. Find your expert readers, and make sure they don’t all look like you.

Almost all my close friends are readers, but there are some that are simply voracious: They read entire books in a weekend and know all the Book World Drama that goes on. These are my Expert Readers and have an automatic place on the board.

The team is also as diverse as possible. I make a conscious effort to ensure my books have characters of various races, sexualities, genders, cultures, ages, etc., which means that I’m not always writing from my own personal experience: As a single, childless white woman of considerable privilege, I’m only have one kind of perspective. That’s why my beta teams are filled with people unlike me — women of color, non-straight friends, parents, older, younger.

Note, however, that having a diverse beta reading team is not a substitute for hiring a professional sensitivity reader. You should still pay someone with that expertise to read your work before publishing.

3. Convey the importance of the job but don’t take it personally when half your team fails on their mission.

They say when throwing a party to only expect half the guest list. The same goes for beta reading. I usually get 2/3 of my readers to give me feedback, and only 1/3 of them do it in the timeframe I ask. Why? Well, we’re all busy adults with lives and day jobs and better things to do than read my newest book. So give your beta team a flexible deadline and lots of gratitude up-front so they know you understand what an undertaking this is — and to drive home to them, too, how much their feedback means to you.

Because the truth is, without beta readers, a lot of our work wouldn’t make it off our laptops and Google drives and into the hands of agents, editors and publishers. So choose wisely!

Another dead darling from Lucky Ellis

Clearly editing is under way on Lucky Ellis, which means the literary bodies are being buried and this blog is the unmarked grave.

Here’s a tight two paragraphs that serve as better background on one Mr. Wade Higgs. I cut them because the book is, for the most part, third person non-omniscient. Spoiler alert: Wade Higgs is not the kind-hearted but gruff outlaw he appears to be in the first chapters of the story.

So here it is:

The fact was that Wade Higgs was tired of bedding only women who did all the work. Sure, there was a pleasure to be had having a beautiful — or at least palatable — lady ride his dick while his only role was to enjoy the view and sensation, but it was becoming too predictable, and if there was one kiss-of-death sign for a gunslinger train robber, it was predictability.

No, what Wade Higgs had come to realize was that he missed having some active responsibility in all the screwing he was doing. He brought this up to Mimi once, hoping she would understand and point him to the best girl in the house for such a task, but the woman she recommended thought he wanted resistance. That wasn’t the case at all — he merely wanted a consenting, desiring novice. So when he saw Lucinda Ellis, a woman he already felt a greater fondness for than any woman in his history, dressed in a chemise and corset, he had put the two together. And, as luck and Lucky would have it, she was consenting and delivered in the exact way he craved.

I killed another darling this week

Before I end up on any watchlists, remember that “kill your darlings” is a term used by writers to discuss cutting out a part of a project that they love. No actual murders were committed.

In fact, I don’t even know if I could call what I did this week to a part of Lucky Ellis (continued working title) as “killing.” Rather, I think I “human-centipeded” a darling, in that I took a large piece that I loved when I wrote it over National Novel Writing Month — you know, the slow-paced writing time where we’re all of sound mind and judgment — and edited it beyond recognition, sandwiching it with two other darlings from other parts of the book until it became an atrocity of genius.

*For the record I have never seen Human Centipede.

Anyway, I learned from another writer to always save renditions, so I’m preserving the original darling here on the blog in case I ever want to return to it. Any beta readers who see it won’t recognize it in the book, and the rest of you can just silently pass judgment on whether it deserved to be called a darling at all:

The aforementioned “darling:”

Lucky didn’t wear a corset as a matter of practicality: It was hard to tend to the barn or put up reserves for winter while being cinched inside a casket of whalebone and cloth. As a farmer’s daughter already promised to the undertaker’s son, even on special occasions she had little need to spruce up in the way the high-fashion magazines recommended. Just as it had no brothel, her town had no ladies’ shops, apart from the small corner of the haberdashery that Mrs. Yarbourg used to sell her millinery creations. The only Crocus Falls woman to own a corset — Darcy Templeton — had worn it exactly once, felt a fool, and was never seen in it again.  

So it was quite the surprise when Corinne was able to pull all the oxygen out of Lucky’s lungs with just a tug on two delicate ribbons.

“Breathe out and suck in,” she directed.

“Is this some sort of sick initiation?” Lucky wheezed, the corset tightening another quarter inch.

“You need to look right,” Corinne groaned, pulling the ribbons again, almost maliciously. 

“Maybe Wade yelled your name when he was fucking Corinne,” Marigold said with a giggle. Lucky wasn’t sure what had just made her stomach plummet: The way Marigold had caressed her cheek, albeit jokingly? The thought of Wade not just having sex with this woman, but thinking of Lucky while doing it? Or maybe Corinne had pulled the corset so tightly that it had finally squeezed her organs out of her body and onto the floor.

Corinne tied the corset’s strings at the bottom. Lucky inhaled cautiously and was surprised to find that it wasn’t impossible to breathe. Corinne victoriously patted her on the left buttock and sat down, a sheen of sweat covering her face.

Lucky looked in the mirror above the vanity and didn’t recognize the woman staring back. After months of living with and acting like men, she had resigned herself to looking like them as well, even when wearing women’s clothing. But the woman standing in the mirror before her had long, dark hair plaited attractively over a shoulder. Her face was clean and highlighted with rouge, the eyes defined with a line of kohl along each lid. The figure she had grown accustomed to binding and hiding beneath linen and wool work clothes was now accentuated into an hourglass by a cream-colored corset and gossamer chemise that puffed out at the top and bottom. 

Marigold’s arms encircled her waist from behind, her chin landing on her shoulder.

“The marshal’s not the only one you need to look out for down there. If she sees you, Miss Mimi will want you to stay here with us,” she said, giving Lucky a peck on the cheek.

Excerpt: How Ester Met Lucky

In another life, Ester Roth would have been plowing the fields alongside her husband, waiting for the sun to go down and give them a little relief in the hot basin that was The Devil’s Cup. As it was, she was slipping out of the stopped locomotive, her white coat catching the cool breeze like the tail of a ghost.

Penelope was waiting on a horse just below the berm, holding the reins of Ester’s own palomino. Jessamine had already made it and mounted behind Penelope, her arm looped tightly around the woman’s waist. Jessamine had complained bitterly about having to double-up on a single horse until she learned Penelope would be her partner — and Ester suspected it wasn’t just because Penelope was the strongest rider in the group.

Ester insisted on being the last person off any train they robbed. It was her calling card, in a way: The dark-skinned woman in a white coat disappearing like a ghost with an entire first class car’s worth of jewels, cash and bullets. Her pockets jingled a little with the final pieces she had taken — today, three gold teeth punched out of the mouth of a man. The last word they had been used to say was the nastiest word anyone could call Ester, and she intended to take them as her price. All she could hope for was that the blood remaining in the crevices of the molars wouldn’t soak through the pocket lining and white linen of her coat.

“Hot day for robbing,” she muttered to herself as she began a quick descent down the hill, swiftly missing a protruding rock and instead leaping onto the back of her horse.

They rode like hell until the smoke from the train’s engine was thinner than a hair in the distance. When they arrived at the camp at the edge of the forest, she and the others presented their take proudly as Rhiannon brought each of them cups of water that had half-emptied as she hobbled with them from the cool sterilization pot. Her ankle was better, she promised, but Ester wasn’t ready to risk it. She had seen too many people literally jump back on their feet after an injury and end up twice as hurt as before.

“Did we miss anything?” Ester asked, stretching one leg out in front of her as she yanked the boot off the other.

“Willie says she heard something in the brush, but it was probably just a rabbit,” Rhiannon said. “By the time I was listening, I didn’t hear anything.”

“The minute we say ‘it was probably just a rabbit,’ it’s going to be a ranger instead,” Ester said, watching a rock fall from her boot before slipping it back on. “I’ll walk the perimeter after lunch. Don’t want anyone catching Singing Bird on her way.”

Though if Ester was being honest, Singing Bird was the more capable at self-defense than Ester, Rhiannon and Willie combined. She knew the land and had traveled much of it, as her tribe had to constantly move to avoid the eastern settlers who were gobbling up the land 160 acres at a time. Ester shuddered to think of how many times Singing Bird might have had to fight a rancher or cavalryman off.

Once she had emptied her other boot of the pebbles and dirt making her feet itch, she took a last swig of water, grabbed her rifle and knife, and disappeared into the woods surrounding the camp. This time of summer, the leaves were deceptively green: Lush in look, but crunchy underfoot, making it nearly impossible to slip through the underbrush undetected.

Of course, that made it hard for anyone else to be quiet, either, which worked in Ester’s favor. Once she had gone deep enough into the woods, she stopped beneath a thick-trunked tree and focused her ears for anything that wasn’t the rustling leaves or her own breath.

She heard it pretty quickly, a distant thrashing of something that didn’t seem to care how much noise it made. That meant it couldn’t be Singing Bird or any of her family; they slipped in and out of the trees like a whisper. And if it was a tracker being sent after them, it was someone who had little finesse and would likely be easy to subdue.

The rustling continued, but it didn’t get closer. Ester tiptoed around the tree to see if she could spot anything. Soon she was walking deeper into the forest, the sound getting louder.

She found it fairly quickly. A wild boar was making its way down a ravine. Ester crouched behind a bush, aiming her rifle: The meat would keep her merry madwomen fed for days.

Ester pulled the trigger. The sound spooked the boar, and it lost its footing, sliding down the remainder of the ravine wall. She swore silently, but then was spooked herself when she heard another gunshot. There was no way an echo would take that long to come back.

And there was no way an echo would also include a scream like the one that followed.

Ester rolled out from behind the bush and crawled closer to the ravine’s edge. Across the way, almost parallel with her across the chasm, was a group of men, one holding a smoking gun. They were so busy looking down into the gorge that they didn’t notice her, and once they were seemingly satisfied with the site at the bottom of it, they turned and disappeared back into the brush.

There didn’t seem to be anything at the bottom of the ravine except the boar, which had picked itself up and was now snorting and beating the ground with one of its hooves. Ester imagined there was a coyote or something down there until she saw movement. It was a person, gender indeterminable but panic palpable.

Checking to be sure the men at the top of the ravine had truly gone, Ester hiked up the tail of her white coat under her armpits and slid on her bottom down the smoothest path along the ravine’s wall. She was close enough now to see it was a woman, dark brown hair falling out of its twig-adorned braid, who was scrambling to get away from the boar. The revolver in her hand shot once, twice, and then clicked — the smallest yet scariest sound to anyone in these parts.

Ester took aim with her rifle and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the boar right in the eye, and the beast’s legs crumpled under it.

The woman fell back in relief, succumbing to the euphoria of survival for a split second before getting her guard up again. Ester took advantage of this brief moment of weakness to walk up and look down at the woman she had just saved. She was white under all the mud streaking her face, and strapped around her chest was a ratty carpetbag, clearly empty apart from some tattered lining.

Feeling confident that the woman was out of bullets, Ester stepped around her to examine the boar. Its bloody eye socket resembled an exploded ripe plum, but the rest of it was in tact and begging to be hoisted on a spit and roasted. Ester’s stomach rumbled in anticipation.

When she heard the woman stir again, she looked over and smiled.

“That’s dinner for the week,” she announced. “Lucky I got here in time, huh?”

Vignette: Spilled champagne amidst high society

The foaming bubbles of spilled champagne clung to her cheap jersey dress like a neon sign screaming “Look at us! A bottle of us costs more than this entire fake bitch’s outfit!”

She tried to sweep them away, crush them into the fabric, before anyone could see. It only made it worse, turning the turquoise synthetic a dark blue that could be seen from across the room. She crossed her arms over her chest, hoping to hide it, while feeling conscious of how flabby her arms were compared to all the rest in the room.

So this was high society, she thought, taking a ginger sip from the wide-mouthed coupe glass. Soul Cycle instructors and music producers; mothers who hired surrogates to protect their figures and hedge fund managers; falling star comedians looking for serious roles and producers looking for a name to sell a blockbuster. No wonder she hadn’t been to an event like this before Nick came along. She hated everyone here.

“You must be Nick’s—” the voices always trailed off at that part, unsure of what to call her. He was still married, and everyone here knew that, even though they were even more privy to the details of his divorce agreement, still unsigned. She saw the way their eyes all drew like magnets to her ring finger, expecting the first Mrs. Banks’ canary diamond there. She also heard their whispers in the corner, wondering which escort agency had sent her and how much they themselves would be willing to pay for a night with a perfectly average woman.

They ought to be more careful, she thought, looking down at her bare hands and slowly drying dress. They might cost Nick some money tonight.

Excerpt: The devil would have to wait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vignette: The Tinkerer

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

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

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

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re the Tinkerer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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