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.

A farewell love letter written in tears and Lysol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short story: “David”

My stomach hit the sidewalk seconds before my coffee did. I had built up in my head that he was in a European prison where I’d never see him again — not standing outside the Starbucks next to where I worked and hardly thought of him at all except once or twice an hour when I’d create in my head my very reaction to seeing him again after all this time.

“Kid! Hey, kid!” I’d call out.

And then I’d walk away and wait for him to chase me. Which of course he would — this was my fantasy, and he did what I wanted.

But as I stared at him in the flesh, I dropped my coffee and felt it scald my skin through my tights. Suddenly an inside joke from our past didn’t seem as appropriate as a solid “Fuck you,” but my mouth couldn’t form the words. All it could do was slam shut as I hoped he hadn’t seen me and my brown-splattered nylons. The same ones he thought I had worn over on a 20-degree March night with the purpose of seducing him (I had), despite how I insisted that I had actually come from happy hour (I hadn’t, unless drinking two glasses of whiskey alone on my couch counted).

“Well hello,” he said with a smile — the kind that had convinced me six months before to get out of the cab one stop early and have a one night stand that lasted two months.

“Hi,” was the only syllable my mouth could form during its battle against my brain, which was still figuring out what it wanted to say as it also debated whether to pick up the fallen coffee cup, hook it with my toe so it wouldn’t blow away or ignore it all together.

“Surprised to see me?”

Of course the fucker was going to make it about him. He always did — asking me if he was my best friend, playing his favorite clips from some show I couldn’t stand, dropping names I didn’t recognize as if the people in his life were celebrities, not just the kind who invited their defense attorneys to family barbecues.

I used to use his comments about his pending departure as a thermometer when I wanted to know how he felt about our relationship: When it was good, he might not have to leave after all. When he was bored or annoyed, moving day suddenly moved up. And when he finally did leave, he made sure not to tell me until a single message lit up my phone after a week of radio silence: “Ah! Last week in Chicago. You were a highlight of my year.” Then, nothing.

He had been the first boy to make me cry. Not even my first yearlong relationship’s disintegration had done that. It had taken me months to stop thinking that six blocks west, two blocks north of my apartment was his neighborhood.

And now he stood on my sidewalk near my office asking me whether I was surprised to see him. For the next year I’d have to turn this corner every day and remember he had been there — one of the few places he hadn’t defiled during the two months of mindfuckery — and it was like he had returned from across the Atlantic just because he had missed a spot.

Shock decayed into chagrin.

“‘Surprised’ isn’t the term I’d use,” I said, hoping the rest of my mind would get on the same anger page. Unfortunately, part of my brain was remembering the feeling of his lips brushing just under my jaw bone while the other part heard his soft, warm laughter in my ear.

“You look great,” he said, surveying the body that had gotten sleeker, stronger and tougher from exercise that had done everything but sweat him out of my system.

“Thanks,” I said, wishing I was the kind of person who could nonchalantly add “I know.”

“So I’m in town for a while staying at my old place,” he said. “Are you still in the area?”

The fact I had never told him where I lived remained one of the few victories I had over him. Then again, he had worked for the county: A simple search, if he had been so inclined, would have given him my address, tax code and social security number.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, you know where I live,” he said, and before I knew what was happening, he had kissed my cheek and walked down my street toward my bridge that I crossed every morning. Except now it was the street he walked down after kissing me on the cheek, and the bridge he crossed on his way to his neighborhood.

I didn’t tell any of my friends I had seen him. I just experienced the deja vu of receiving a parboiled invitation that ended with “or something,” which meant adding “Shave legs, change underwear, drink two glasses of whiskey” to the list of things I had to do before leaving my house at 7:53 so I could arrive at 8:05 on the dot, be pulled by my scarf into the house and pressed up against the wall as his hands pushed tugged teasingly at my collar.

The Corvette button he gave me and that I still wore (“I don’t care who gave it to me, I just really like it,” I would spit at friends’ raised eyebrows) made a clatter on the floor when my coat landed at my feet. For the third time, I abandoned my gray boots five feet apart in the hallway as I walked in like it was my apartment, not his. And I lost yet another pair of tights to his fingers as they grappled to pull them down while pushing me back onto the dining table where I once left a pair of earrings so he’d feel obligated to invite me back.

The apartment still smelled of cinnamon tea and vanilla wax. His breath still tasted of red wine and lies. And there was still a watermark on the ceiling that looked like the Virgin Mary from some angles and a mushroom cloud from others. That image of mass murder and destruction was the last thing I saw before closing my eyes in a mix of anger and ecstasy, if there was even a difference between the two. They both made me scream and arch my back.

He buttoned his jeans and padded into the kitchen to pour cabernet savignon into two white wine glasses. I got off the table and straightened my skirt, leaving the punctured tights in a ball on the chair. His desk looked the same as always with the laptop open to film editing software and an external hard-drive blinking lazily next to it.

“Let me show you what I’m working on,” he said, handing me a glass and sitting down on the cheap task chair.

I hated that chair. One night he had pulled me over while we watched a clip of a show he had played for me at least five times before, and my quads burned from holding most of my weight off his leg. I feared our equally strong personalities were two heavy for the chair’s flimsy plastic spindle.

Tonight I stood behind him, my chin pinning my hand to the top of his head where it memorized the texture of his curls. I remembered how the sun turned his tarnished gold hair silver. There must be a lot more sun in London than I thought.

And there it was, that same clip he had shown me before. When I had finally seen the show it was from months after his departure, I had skipped the rest of the episode.

“I have this insane idea,” he said when it ended, spinning around in the chair and wrapping his hands around my waist. “Stay over,” he whispered to my belly button.

He had said the same thing before. I had said I had meetings the next day. Tonight I just sipped my wine to buy time to decide on a response. The glass hid my smirk, but I hoped that just this once the cabernet wouldn’t dye my lips purple.

Still unsure of how I wanted to answer, I twisted out of his grasp and went to the window to make sure the 160-year-old city cathedral hadn’t changed in the months since I had seen it from this 10-story perspective. Nope, still there. Still majestic and still a reminder of where I stood, vibrating from the inside out and cursing how easily I bruised as I succumbed to the phantom of his hands clinging to the back of my thighs. I drained my glass as I watched his reflection close in on mine. It took a quick diversion toward the door to the balcony that I never remembered how to pull or push.

The cathedral lights illuminated his face as he smoked outside. I sat on the deck chair with my legs pulled up to my chest. the cool breeze bringing drops of rain and floods of memories. The night he had said he’d like to see if we could make this work. The night he said he might not leave. The night we had watched the sunrise while my thin socks kept catching on the rough concrete deck and his hand slid down the inside back of my jeans.

Now we sat in the two chairs, the air snapping as if to ask “What now?” Or maybe that was just the sound of his lighter as he lit a cigarette and listened to a group of women cackling with delight on the street below.

“Who has a bachelorette party on a Wednesday?” he asked, and I realized it is Wednesday — our usual day when we would bite each other’s lips and whisper things that would echo in my ears and make me blush on Thursday and even into Friday. They just made it harder to wait for some kind of text message from him that wouldn’t come until maybe Monday. Asshole.

We were just like this on his balcony when he said I talked too much and laughed too loud. I had been staring at the cathedral when he asked me to give him credit for taking me home with him instead of my more attractive friend because he thought I was more interesting. I stood up and leaned against the iron railing to get a better look at the church and heard him say, six months previous, “You’re so confusing. It’s like you’re as cool as a guy, but in this great female body.”

Suddenly I wanted to take the cigarette out of his mouth and shove the lit end into the bridge of his nose. Instead he flicked it into the planter-turned-mass-grave. As he stood, I hoped he would kiss me in time for me to still taste it on his tongue.

“I’m glad you came,” he said, wrapping his arms around me. I squeezed the air out of his down coat and wondered if we were going to watch one more sunrise together.

The sweet smoke smell fills my nose, cutting through the burnt black coffee smell rising from my hands. The man turns on the street corner, raising the cigarette to his lips as he waits for the light to change so he can survive crossing the street only to die of lung cancer when he’s 50. His hazel eyes catch the sun.

The stranger walked one way and I went the other, sipping my coffee and adjusting the Corvette pin on my jacket. Of all the things I remember about him, I still can’t recall the color of his eyes.

Vignette: “Parasite”

Over the weekend I removed my brain from my skull, opened it like a handbag and turned it upside down, shaking every memory, thought, impulse, question and answer about us onto paper. Every what-if and why-that; every I-should-have and you-should-have and that-should-have-never-happened fell onto the page in spiderweb writing crawling with ink splotches.

When I finished, I slammed the words into a book to squash them dead, then set to work whip-stitching my brain closed again before placing it back into my head. I thought that was enough until, with one 11-word message, you found the spot where the thread was weakest and wormed your way back inside.