Character: Deirdre St. Oleander

I talked to my first corpse when I was six.

There was a tramp who died in the gutter outside Miss Morton’s Millenary, where my mother sent me to stitch the tiny baby’s breath flowers along each hat’s brim. Tiny fingers are good for that work, and my vision was sharp enough to see even in the dim candlelight once the winter days grew shorter.

The tramp liked to say good morning to every lady who passed, sweeping his floppy hat off with a bow and exposing a shiny bald pate. Stitches ran across it like railroad tracks, like someone had once opened his head up, poked around in his brain, and closed it up hoping no one would notice.

Except I noticed.

When the tramp died, everyone thought he was sleeping. Even I thought he was just napping in the gutter when he suddenly stood up, swept his floppy hat off his head and bowed to me.

“Good morning, young miss,” he said like he always did, but this time it sounded like it was coming from underwater — gurgling, distant. I curtsied like my mother taught me. Every person is a person, especially those down on their luck, she would say.

“Tell me, do you know which way to the railroad station?” The tramp asked. “I seem to have forgotten.”

I pointed in the direction, and he walked off. It was then that I knew something was wrong. First off, his limp was gone, and he glided tall as a tree through the crowd. Second, while I watched him walk away, I also saw that he was still lying in the gutter.

Miss Morton — really Mrs. Debonay Tristan Morton, for as many times as she had been married at that time — came outside and shrieked. She never liked the tramp because she said he scared away her customers. While in life he never seemed to deter anyone from entering her shop, in death he certainly was getting his revenge.

The Street Sweepers came to get his body, and Miss Morton sent me home. While I want to believe it was because she felt bad that I, a wee six-year-old, had encountered death on her doorstep, I have a hard time believing a woman who employees a child that young for pennies a day had any concern for my well-being and was more worried that I had somehow contracted fleas or lice while standing so close to the body. For good measure, I hugged her around the waist before darting down the street back to my mother.

When I told her what had happened, she didn’t seem surprised. In fact, she seemed rather pleased.

“I knew you’d have it, DeeDee, but I didn’t think it would come this soon,” she crowed.

“Have what, Ma?”

“Your grandma had it, too. It skips generations, see. I was always happy I didn’t have it — they scare me, see — but if you’ve got it…sweetest, we’re out of the soup! You’ll never have to go back to Miss Morton’s again! We’ll have cake for breakfast, and you’ll have a trunk full of pretty clothes!”

Something was definitely amiss, as my mother was never one to fantasize. If the average person in our town was down-to-Earth, she was a layer of gravel under the cobblestones.

She was right, though. I never went back to Miss Morton’s Millenary, and by the end of that year I not only had a trunk of new dresses, but we had a whole new house where she and I had separate rooms, and a kindly woman cooked and cleaned for us while my mother toured me around to the biggest houses and theaters in the city. My name was plastered on posters pasted to theater windows and city squares — not DeeDee Sous, but Deirdre St. Oleander, Child Necromancer and Medium.

Butlers opened doors for me with a bow and led me into ornate parlors centered around ornate caskets surrounded by ornate people with top hats and Spanish fans. Audiences stood on their feet and applauded just when they caught site of me walking onstage. And then everyone would grow silent, and I would have to approach it: The body. Marble-like skin sagging over loose muscle. Crepe-like eyelids draped over visionless pupils.

Most of them didn’t notice the packed house staring at them when their spirit sat up to talk to me. Usually they were too self-involved, telling me who they never got to say goodbye to, or who they wanted to curse now that they had seen the afterlife. There was an older gentleman with a gear permanently implanted over his left eye who sat up, looked straight at his colleague in a high-backed leather chair, and spat on him. Of course, the colleague neither saw nor felt any of this. And it wasn’t my job to tell him — instead, I had to whisper it to the hostess of the wake, who could barely contain her excitement as she giddily skipped away to tell her friend, who presumably told her husband, who presumably passed it on to his co-worker…

When I turned 12, my mother and I moved into an even bigger home. This house had four servants, and still it was just the two of us. Then she met Mr. Theobald Dorchester, a made-up name if I ever heard of one, who charmed her into bankruptcy before he took off on a fishing boat, never to be seen again.

I was 14, then, and entering my gawky stage. I was no longer the cute child who could talk to the dead, and I was not yet a woman of any consequential properties, apart from my necromancy talent. Like the perpetual adolescent it is, the world had moved on from its obsession with the dead and taken up a new interest in the never-living as scientists built robots and steam-machines capable of traversing the universe. Who needs restless spirits when you can fly to the moon and back?

The bank took our house, so we moved into an old theater that used to host me every month. The stage manager had an apartment upstairs that he let us stay in while he worked nights at an underground tavern my mother said I was too young to know about. But 14-year-old girls are never too young to know something, and never too fearful to go looking for the truth, which is how I found The Borgnine Club.

I followed the stage manager, Fritz, there almost every Tuesday night because that was the night my mother cleaned The Inventor’s workshop. From behind dusty curtains I would watch the shows being performed, and the patrons who paid for admission. If there wasn’t a woman peeling off her bloomers on stage, there was a juggler or a comedian egging on the crowd. Waitresses drifted like smoke between the tables, dressed only in their corsets and garters. All clients were men, and each one of them was required to wear the same black top hat with a purple band around its middle. The waitresses would slip notes into the band from other patrons so that no one had to be seen fraternizing with each other, even though they all had secrets to share.

One night, as a bellydancer performed a sort of slapstick routine, there was a different hat that stood out from the sea of black stovepipes. It was a broad-brimmed lady’s hat, bright pink and edged with white baby’s breath. I watched the woman’s head bob in time to the piano player’s music and tip back as she laughed at the comedic performance, revealing an older, luminous visage. Her lips were painted black cherry, and her eyes crinkled as she guffawed. I was instantly mesmerized.

“That’s what this world is missing!” She crowed. “Enough of this masturbatory, self-important exploration — we want deprave dramatics! Give me a show magician or a fortune telling prodigy any day over these humdrum machines these men roll out to impress us. It’s all about the theater of it all!”

She had the attention of the whole club now. A few men coughed their indignation into linen handkerchiefs, but most of her fellow club members were enthralled.

“I once saw a little girl talk to my best friend’s sister three days after the poor woman died. Repeated stuff that even my best friend didn’t know, but I’ll tell you — that little darling was the real deal. Deborah something, I think her name was. Little spitfire, but she disappeared right after that. Probably grew up, or some nonsense like that.”

For the rest of the evening, my brain grew warm with the friction of thought grinding against hope. The woman’s party didn’t leave until 2 a.m., but I was awake and waiting outside the door.

“Ma’am,” I called after the pink hat in the crowd. She didn’t turn around, so I darted after her. “Ma’am, you mentioned me! You were friends with Mrs. Squire.”

At Mrs. Squire’s name, the pink hat turned, and I came face-to-face with the black cherry lips.

“Mrs. Squire?” The woman asked. “Well, yes, but how do you—”

“I’m Deirdre St. Oleander,” I said quickly, aware that her attention was worth more money than I had in my pockets, and I couldn’t afford to hold it for too long. “I was the little girl. I talked to Mrs. Squire’s sister, Adele.”

The woman’s face cracked open, almost as pink as her hat. She reeked of the hard liquor they sold in different shaped glasses inside the Borgnine Club.

“Why Miss St. Oleander,” she said. “Boys, this is the young necromancer I mentioned. You’re certainly growing into a lady. Not quite there yet, but soon, I imagine!”

My cheeks burned with the same embarrassment that came when my mother fretted over how we had little money and even less time before I’d need a proper corset and girdle for under my cotton shift dresses.

“Do you have any work for me?” I asked, my face now matching the woman’s hot pink hat. “Any dead people you want to talk to? Freshly dead, of course.”

The woman roared with the same laughter that echoed off the beams of the Borgnine.

“My sweet, not tonight, but give me a day and I’ll have ridden one of these gorgeous men to their death,” she said, squeezing the arm of the tall many next to her. “But if you were to put on a show, I would buy out the theater. I haven’t had as much schadenfreude as I had when you announced how Lydia Squire’s sister once made a pass at me during their parent’s Winter Ball. Ooh, how Lydia steamed — I didn’t hear from her again, and good riddance is all I can say about that.”

The men around her chortled.

“Next Saturday,” I blurted. “The Old Mill Theater. Eight o’clock.”

“Noted,” she said, impressed. “Thank you, Miss St. Oleander. I look forward to a spectacle,”

The week passed like a blur, and so did the show, but with a giant pink splotch in the middle of the muddled memory. The woman surely had filled the theater with her friends, and she made sure to sit front and center as I talked to a baker we had borrowed from the morgue (he asked that his recipe for hot crossed buns be shared only with his middle son, and no one else); an inventor who had, just that day, blown himself up trying to get to Mars (he wanted to know where his legs had gone); and, could it be? Miss Morton herself, bloated with booze and clucking about this year’s dismal styles for ladies’ headwear. I relayed her ten-minute rant about fascinators to the audience, expanding just a little on the horrors of taxidermy birds perching atop any woman’s head.

After the show, the woman came backstage to thank me personally for a much-needed evening.

“It was spectacular,” she said. “Just a little advice — add some more theatrics next time. You have a gift: Now give it a little sparkle.”

Luckily, I was the kind of teenager who loved sparkle. A few late nights at the Borgnine Club sponsored by the woman in the pink hat, and we had enough money to buy me a proper corset and underthings, plus a scandalously short dress that made my mother cross herself before sitting down to count the night’s takings. By the time I was 15, we had moved out of the stage manager’s apartment and taken up residency next door. It was a modest home, but it was ours.

When I was 16, my mother started coughing up blood and coal dust. It was all those years cleaning for The Inventor, I knew. Medicine was expensive and not guaranteed to work, but I kept adding more theatrics to my shows. When the dead bodies had nothing interesting to say — they wondered the time, or asked for directions to the tavern — I would embellish just enough so the audience was eating out of my one hand and filling the other with paper bills.

I was 17 when a man dressed in a brown leather coat lied flat on the slab before me. His face was half gone, scraped away by the road as a steam-powered carriage dragged him half a mile before the driver noticed. When his spirit sat up, it did nothing but scream.

Once in a while we got screamers. At 8, I ran off the stage with my hands over my ears because of the wailing banshee the coroners had dropped off for our show. But this man’s yells were nothing like I had heard before. They sounded like they were coming up from his toes and amplifying through the gaping hole in the side of his face.

“Sorry, folks,” I tried to say over the screams. “He’s a little hard to understand. Had a bit much to drink, I’m afraid, and it appears he’s woken up from the dead still drunk! The man just made a pass at me.” I clutched my chest and looked at the screaming soul, feigning scandal.

Most of the audience laughed, but not the man at the table in the front row. He glowered at me, and it felt like the bones in my corset had suddenly twisted even tighter.

“Sir, you have to say it slower and quieter,” I said to the man in the brown coat. He turned to look at me and continued screaming, his facial wounds now inches from my face. My throat closed to keep from vomiting.

“He’s not drunk,” said a voice. It was the man in the front row. “He’s a Brother.”

I should have known from his brown coat and coarse black boots, and how he had been riding in the back of a steam-powered carriage, instead of up with the driver. This man wasn’t some drunk who got tangled up and dragged a half mile. He was a Brother of the Order — a devout follower who abstained from sex, alcohol, modern mechanics, and, most importantly, speech.

It all felt like a cruel joke, and I was punchline. A hush fell over the audience, and the woman in the pink hat looked at me like I had betrayed her.

“Miss Deirdre,” she said, standing soberly. “I do believe you’ve been caught in a lie.”

“But I—”

“And it makes one wonder,” she said even louder, “how many times before you’ve caught us in your lies.”

The audience was on its feet now, either knocking back the last of their drink or throwing their empty glasses at the foot of the stage. The man in the front row stood up, shook his head, and walked out as silent as the Brother.

That was the last time I saw the woman in the pink hat. I performed only once more at the Borgnine Club before they canceled my other appearances, and soon word got around town that I was a fraud, just because I gave the people what they wanted: Not the dead talking, but the dead singing.

I’m not a fraud. I can talk to the dead.

I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I?

Character vignette: Merritt King, the Pick-Me Girl

Merritt had lost something and didn’t notice until it was too late.

She had lost herself.

Somewhere in her transition from being Merri, giggle-monster middle schooler who wanted to be an archaeologist who designed fashion based on what she discovered during her digs, to Mer, hard-ass tomboy with little respect for the world and even less for herself, the real Merritt King had ducked out through an emergency exit and left her feeling empty.

“You’re the worst kind of girl,” Cardeja had yelled at her as she stormed away across the lunchroom. “A Pick-Me girl. The kind who pushes other girls down because she thinks it’ll make a boy like her more.”

What made Mer so mad that day at her best friend — no, former best friend — was that Deja was right. Matt Charles had walked into their fourth period algebra class one day, and that night she had gone home and stripped the walls bare of the computer printouts of One Direction with highlighter hearts around Harry’s face; pushed all her dresses to the back of the closet; stolen the oldest issues from her brothers’ Car and Driver and Sports Illustrated archives; and watched an hour of YouTube videos describing how to apply liberal amounts makeup in a way that looks like you’re not wearing any at all.

If every other girl in class was going to hyperfeminize to attract the new boy, she was going to stand out by doing the exact opposite.

The next day she walked into school with her skinny jeans cuffed unevenly, Chuck Taylors rubbed dirty with mulch from the front lawn, and brother’s raggedy flannel shirt hanging over a low-cut camisole. She passed Matt’s locker, jeans cutting into her sides, Chucks giving her the mother of all blisters, and flannel itching her armpits. But she felt like she looked good, and that was what confidence was, right?

She sat on her hands so she wouldn’t bite her nails during study hall as she tried every opening line out in her head. The Car and Driver sat on her desk, untouched. And then he was walking in, with his hair perfectly pushed back from his emerald eyes, and his Rolling Stones T-shirt so authentically him. At least, it felt that way.

Mer opened her mouth to cooly say “Hey,” but was rudely interrupted by Mrs. Tarvinski dropping dead at her desk in what would become a mass extinction of anyone over the age of 17.

Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.

Vignette: Moxie’s mood makeup

Even lost at sea, she lined her eyes to coordinate with how she felt that day.

At the start of the adventure, she painted her lids with dazzling purple glitter, adding a dot or a star that reflected how shiny and new this wave-riding world felt to her. By the end of the day, the glitter would have flaked and fallen onto her cheeks so that in certain lights, it looked like sea spray, sometimes tears.

They called her Moxie, even though she had never asked them to. Her real name was Sue, but there was a mute man on the crew with a parrot he spelled out as “S-O-O” using a fist and two O-shaped hand gestures. At least, that’s what everyone preferred to think that sequence of sign language letters meant. He could have just been telling them to jack him off. And anyway, Moxie was fine with her new moniker. She’d always wanted an “X” in her name.

The longer they floated aimlessly — except, notably, when they were plowing through the waves to get away from a giant sea monster or enemy ship — the less color she used. Sometimes it would be brown or muted green that brought out the flecks in her hazel irises: A sign that she was being particularly introspective that day. Other times it was a faint gold that reflected the red-sky-at-morning and a particularly playful attitude. And then there were the dark days, like the ones after Porfry and Greela were snatched overboard by a giant squid, or when Yaru was shot through the heart by rival pirates, when she smudged black kohl across her lids and cried it off by supper.

One night a crew-mate called Kraken snuck into Moxie’s quarters and found the tiny box containing her eye paints. It was ebonied wood with a tarnished clasp of cheap metal that had somehow not rusted shut in the sea air that cocooned everything in moist warmth. Moxie knew that Kraken was in her room the minute she heard the screams, the guttural gurgling, and seen the blood creep from under the door and into the main galley as the boat pitched. She calmly opened the door, stepped over the puddle of Kraken’s blood, and closed the box.

By the morning, the blood was cleaned up. The only sign that Kraken had once been on the ship was the stain on the wood planks outside the door. It was the same reddish brown as the dramatically winged eyeliner painted across Moxie’s lids.

Character sketch: The Debutante

It felt like yesterday despite being almost 15 years ago when Billie Jean Carusoe walked down the country club’s grand staircase — left standing just for this purpose — in a white satin gown with matching gloves. Head-to-toe in status symbols, from a great-grandmother’s add-a-pearl necklace to her very own diamond tennis bracelet, Billie Jean floated along with ten other girls her age, all competing to outdo each other with the perfect blend of Mommy and Daddy’s dream and teenage rebellion.

Thanks to the full white skirt, no one could see Wendy Jackson’s black lace thong, shoplifted not because she couldn’t afford it but because she couldn’t risk her mother finding the receipt. The white satin bodice hid the diamond stud in Trina Sawyer’s navel (though her mother didn’t mind that, as she had been the one to take her to Spencers for that little 16th birthday gift). Sniff close enough and you might detect the weed Loretta Debs had smoked the night before, if you didn’t suffocate from the smell of Ed Hardy perfume she had bathed in before slipping on her bespoke gown.

And as for Billie Jean? The white gloves hid her knuckles, bruised and swollen from the week’s boxing matches at Arturo’s. Her slight black eye had healed in time, and with an extra coat of makeup expertly applied by her sister, no one was the wiser as to what the tallest of Poppleton Fields Country Club’s debutantes did after school every day.

Now Billie Jean silently guarded an event filled with the same kind of tycoons, socialites and ladder-climbers who politely applauded her ability to be 17 and walk in a glorified Disney princess costume. Her gloves were no longer white satin, but indestructible teflon-coated fibers that firmed up when she made a fist so that every punch landed twice the blow. While the gown decayed in her mother’s closet, her cowled coat fluttered in the night air. But despite leaving that traditional Southern lifestyle behind, Billie Jean refused to forget the feeling of satisfaction she had when her parents beamed all summer after her debut.

Her enemies knew her by the beatings she delivered in dark alleys and on slum rooftops, but she prefered another monicker: The Debutante.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 25: Travis Boccoli

Travis Boccoli — “spelled like Broccoli, but without the R and nutritional value” he taglined himself online — had finally bit the coffee bean and traveled up to Centropolis to visit his sister and her bougie husband. They had gotten married while he was down in Guatemala working on a coffee plantation, but the invitation never reached him. Something about living in a dirt-floor hut made you out of reach, even from ivory linen stationery embossed with real gold leaf. The night his whole family was dining on caviar and filet mignon in celebration of her matrimony, he ate the same corn tortillas and black beans as usual, feeling superior to the entire lot of them.

But once he had gotten back states-side, his family descended on him. His mother complained that he had lost too much weight; his father asked when he was going to get a real job. And his sister? 

“Travis, darling, I wish you had been there!” Cleo Meachum nee Boccoli had said over the phone. “We had a small chamber ensemble of the Centropolis Symphony Orchestra play a Radiohead song so it would feel a bit more like you were there.”

He smirked at the thought of something like “Creep” or “Something I Can Never Have” accompanying her nuptials, though he couldn’t trust Cleo to know what the lyrics were to those songs. She had always been a Top Forty flake. 

But when Cleo invited him to spend a couple weeks in her old apartment while the lease ran out, he decided it would be better than living at his parent’s house on the East Coast and packed up a couple flannel shirts, some jeans and his laptop. His blog, Brews with Boccoli, had just landed an ad deal from a couple micro-roasters, provided he keep his traffic up, and a trip to Centropolis would give him an in with the urban set. 

So the day Cleo had announced she was having a dinner party to introduce him to a few of her and Jack Meachum’s friends, he disappeared into what looked like a local coffee roaster to taste and review some of their offerings. He knew he was in for a critic’s feast when the first thing he heard was the whining voice of some folk singer with a name pronounced five different ways, and the second thing was “Cherry almond mocha blended latte with coconut milk for Alex.” 

These weren’t coffee people. These were donut-in-a-cup people. Just wait until he wrote up his treatise on the weakening of the American tastebud and used this overpriced joint as a framework. He walked up to the window and was immediately asked if he’d be interested in a taster of the barista’s newest concoction, a latte with almond milk, honey and cayenne pepper. 

He smiled at the cashier — friendly in her eyes, but devious in truth — and said “Sure, plus a small dark roast, small medium roast, and an espresso shot.” 

“Coffee blogger, huh?” she asked, unfazed. “We get one of you every weekend. I’ll just give you our flight so you don’t have to pretend to drink a full small size of each.” 

Travis’ smile turned genuine. The girl was cute. A treble clef tattoo curled behind her ear, and when she handed him his change he saw — no, was it really? — a Scrappy-Doo tattoo on her wrist.  

“Enjoy,” she said sarcastically. “I’ll bring it to you when it’s up.” 

Travis took a seat at one of the cramped tables, as far away as possible from a group of loud women comparing drinking stories from the night before. One one side of him was a woman watching something on her tablet while picking purple nail polish off her nails and letting the scraps fall to the floor like violet-colored dandruff. On the other side was a tall man who had propped his feet up on the chair across from him as he pretended to read his book. Travis knew the scheme well, having perfected it while eavesdropping on his parents’ arguments when he was a kid. 

He saw the cashier coming toward him with the flight of coffee on a tray, and he had less than a minute to decide whether to ask her to dinner that night. His sister wouldn’t mind one more — after all, she wasn’t doing the cooking or cleanup.  

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 20: Splendiferous

Lester Ranovich hated working the custodial dayshift — not based on the work, which was easier than nightshift cleaning, but because of the way the fancy people at the fancy 111 East building would either be over-friendly or pretend he didn’t exist. The latter was what he preferred, honestly. He knew that none of these designer suit-clad desk jockeys were remotely interested in how his weekend was or how he was doing.  

Sometimes he liked to play a game to see if they were paying attention. “How are you?” he’d ask. “Fine, you?” they would always fire back. Always replying to a question with the same question and hoping they’d get the same answer back, “Fine,” and then move on. But this was when he’d get tricky. His granddaughter had just gotten a dictionary for her birthday, and every night after dinner they’d pore over it looking for a word for the next day that they would each have to use in conversation. She was 10. He was nearing 63. Both took immense joy from the challenge.

Today’s word: “Splendiferous: extraordinarily or showily impressive.” 

So whenever anyone asked how he was doing, he would answer with “Splendiferous.” Depending on the word, he either came off as the harbinger of morbidity or just a crazy old loon.