Excerpt from “Nobody’s Hero:” Meet Constance Lin, reporter

There are many kinds of journalists, but none more diametrically opposite than the Conference Room Reporter and the War Zone Reporter. Their stories are just as critical to a functioning democratic society, but their tolerances are different.

A War Zone Reporter doesn’t flinch at the sound of an F-15 screaming overhead or run for cover when a bomb detonates three blocks over, but will shriek with boredom sitting across a table from a source and their three lawyers. A Conference Room Reporter can weather the monotonous monsoon of picked-and-polished information that talking heads regurgitate from a talking points briefing sheet, but has no stomach for personal peril other than a potential cease and desist from an annoyed source.

That’s why the Federal Vigilante Agency’s press room — located on the second floor and shrouded from the city with automated, retractable window screens when the occasion called for discretion — had broken into chaos. All of these local news crews and writers whose worst fears were a dying phone battery during an exclusive interview were facing certain death at the hands of a madman who had just made his presence known by splashing his logo in dripping neon green light along the wall behind the podium.

At least, that was Constance Lin’s take on things from where she stood in the back of the room. Being six feet tall helped her see over the melee, but the extra four inches added by her high heels meant a less stable base as the room swarmed with panicked people.

The dark momentarily dissipated with an abrupt bolt of light that seared itself into everyone’s eyes as it vanished. Up on the wall, down on the floor, pasted to the back of heads, no matter where Constance looked, there it was: the sun-bright outline of a flaming, falling meteor that made up infamous villain Flashbang’s calling card.

Suddenly the heat of embarrassment at mentioning the threatening memo left her cheeks. Instead, her brain buzzed with the reminder that she needed to survive. She had come too far — all those years embedded with troops in Syria, mountain climbers on Everest, villagers in Sudan — to be brought down by some asshole with a fancy light show.

Axiom Thorne: The first night on The Hydra

No new statue on the bow was going to fix the fact that this ship was being run by our ragtag team of misfits. We scrubbed it clean, loaded new cannons, relettered its name “The Hydra” on the side in silver that tarnished on contact with the salty air, and yet it was just the same as our former vessel — the one that had carried its crew to a port for us, and a grave for it.

The traitor Darvin was long dead, swallowed by a monster in a cave. I did not grieve him, no matter how Captain Urto anticipated my heartache. It was futile to explain that Darvin held not a single string of my heart, no matter how many nights he retired to my quarters. He was merely a filling for the one I had left behind; the one who had forgotten me long before I found myself afloat on the tenacious sea.

Now something else had taken Ansel’s place — a stone, cold and black and powerful, sent by the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes. It was possibly the greatest gift he had bestowed upon me, though I did not yet understand why.

The first night aboard the Hydra, I nestled within my bedsheets, still musty with dust and dried sage. The lamplight swayed with the ship, dancing to the tune of waves lapping against its sides and my heart beating against the black gem implanted within it. Here in the quiet, however, thoughts of Ansel started oozing from the cracks between animal and mineral, and I was awash with the memory of his eyes looking at me curiously, wondering who I might be as I cried in self-pity at the foot of his bed.

My eyes shot open, hoping the dark ship wall would save me from the vacancy of his face and the weakness of my past. And they might have, had Ansel not been sitting at the foot of my bed now, his eyes twinkling with recognition.

“I miss you, my love,” he said, smiling that crooked grin that made my insides turn to gelatin. Even the black rock in my chest became jam more than gem.

I lunged forward without thinking, hoping his arms would catch me like they always had, and instead slammed my face into the wall. Ansel was gone, replaced only by a knock from the other side and Azha’s half-concerned, half-annoyed, “Everything OK in there, Ax?”

“Fine,” I said, unsure if the tears in my eyes were from the pain blossoming outward from my nose, or from the memory of my greatest failing.

#CampNaNoWriMo Vignette: “Homo sapien bitterus”

The first thing I see when I walk in is two construction workers sitting and chatting with Kris, the bartender. Shortly after I silently slip onto the stool, Kris approaches with an empty pint glass in hand, detouring briefly at the tap to pour the darkest stout on the menu before placing it in front of me.

“You’re a little early today,” she says.

“You’re a little heady today,” I reply, eying the two inches of foam filling the top of the glass.

One of the construction workers spins a pack of cigarettes between two fingers like a hyperactive watermill, and I feel my mouth itch. It’s been two years, seven month and nine days since my last cigarette, and although I can now run a mile without keeling over, the cravings haven’t gotten better.

The construction worker’s pal notices me trying not to stare at the pack of cigarettes.

“What do you want?” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.

“I quit, and I’m regretting it,” I say, nodding to the Marlboroughs once they’re face down on the bar.

“Sorry,” the smoker says, picking up the pack as if hiding it from me will make me forget how much my lips itch. “I tried a while ago, and I couldn’t do it. Girlfriend even threatened to leave, and I couldn’t stop.”

“She was a bitch,” shrugs his friend, sipping his bear. “A black lung is better than blue balls.”

His friend laughs, but it’s fake. I can tell that he’s still hurting from his girlfriend leaving, and he blames himself, his parents, his friend, the tobacco industry, even Marlborough Man Tom fucking Selleck himself, judging from the way he manhandles the crinkled box of cigarettes as he pushes them back into his workpants pocket.

The two of them go back to talking about something a guy named Ed did while sitting in his pansy-ass air conditioned trailer, and I go back to contemplating the now-thinned head on my beer. Behind the bar is a mirror hazed with time and tobacco, but I can see people walking past the bar and looking in at the urban zoo exhibit and its inhabitants. Morgan’s should have a plaque outside the door: “Species: Homo sapien bitterus. Diet: Alcohol, tobacco, regret. Habitat: Dive bars, construction sites, newsrooms. Thrive best in climates of sarcasm, self-pity and loathing.”

Axiom Thorne: The Crestbalm Fete

It was all my aunt’s idea, sending me in my mother’s wedding dress dyed with indigo I had collected from the riverbank. She proudly presented this plan to us while showing off one of three gowns she had just commissioned from The House of Raheem in Dragon’s Head.

The dress has been stored in her attic since my father had died — Mamma had asked her sister-in-law to take care of it, as we needed the extra closet space for my clothes now that they no longer fit in the little prayer chest at the foot of my bed. My aunt had grumbled and eventually obliged by shoving the dress in a crate. I can only assume that’s where it had spent nearly 12 years when she drew it from her wardrobe. In no way had the the wrinkled mess been hanging there for longer than a couple days.

“You’ve got the same stick-straight boy build as your mother,” she said, lifting the creased fabric up to me. “Just add some beads and use some of those flowers from behind the house to dye it, and it’ll be a whole new dress.”

“That should be fine, thank you,” Mamma said, our eyes locking as I dared her to laugh and she dared me to spit in her sister-in-law’s eye. Neither of us felt confident enough to do either, so we shoved as many scones from the tea tray into our pockets before gathering the dress and bidding my aunt farewell.

The Crestbalm Fete arrived a week later. Ansel arrived at the door in his oldest brother’s best suit, clutching a bouquet of forget-me-nots in his hand. They had gone limp from the heat in the air and the sweat from his palms. As my mother hugged me goodbye, I saw the blueish-purple under her fingernails and remembered that it would likely be another three weeks before they were cleaned from the memory of late nights filled with stinky dye and strained eyesight.

Mamma’s alterations had turned her simple white wedding gown from a heavy bundle of wrinkled satin to an indigo dress so light that it almost floated. The four layers of skirts we removed were now blanketing our beds — a luxurious addition to our tiny boudoirs — and the final one hovered gently on the breeze, tickling my legs as Ansel took my hand in his and led me down the street toward the village square where the annual striped tent had been erected, its walls draped with vines and fragrant flowers.

Gardenia Smote and Louie Berenger met us at the mouth of the tent, inviting us to their table. I knew they liked Ansel and more-or-less tolerated me, but compared to the many others whom Ansel called friends, they were far more tolerable. Louie once threw a rock at the baker’s boy for calling me a slug when we were six, and Gardenia made a fuss over my dress and how she far preferred it to the fuchsia organza gown she had inherited from her sister.

We were hardly the only girls there in a hand-me-down or makeshift dress. In fact, those who had new gowns from the Dragon’s Head fashion houses or even Porfery’s Emporium in town were mocked behind their backs for their extravagance. Who would spend a single gold coin, let along fifty, on a dress for our tiny town’s annual fete? In this way, the Crestbalm Fete every year saw the same dresses, suits and robes swirling around different bodies.

Ansel had just returned to our table with two glasses of sparkling wine when the tent dimmed and the center of the room illuminated to reveal Mayoress Andreu in periwinkle taffeta that glistened against her red tiefling skin. She wasted no time in launching into the speech she likely gave every year.

“In Crestbalm we have a saying, ‘The fete is the future taking flight,'” her voice lilted, almost in song. Her gossamer wings unfolded, glowing in the magical spotlight. “And what a beautiful future, indeed!”

With one pump of her wings, she launched into the air and disappeared with a crack. The tent relit itself, and a band no one had noticed before began playing soft dinner music as waiters delivered platters of chicken, potatoes, carrots, greens, waffles, berries, scones, noodles, spare ribs, grapes, hollandaise-coated asparagus, salmon, quail eggs, and more. Dinner at the fete was traditionally donated, so each table received what their families had worked together to provide. Our table was ladened with Gardenia’s family’s brisket, arugula salad from the Berengers’ garden, corn pancakes cooked and salted butter churned on Ansel’s farm, and Mamma’s signature green tea cakes, and creme d’violete custards that almost matched my gown.

We stuffed ourselves silly, the sauce from the brisket staining our mouths and the green tea cakes crumbling into our laps as we licked the frosting from our fingers. The sparkling wine in our glasses magically replenished, though whether it was at the hand of our wizard mayor or stealth waiters, we weren’t sure and didn’t care to ask.

Doreena Cowl started the dancing by dragging her date to the middle of the floor, and the band took her lead by playing a louder, faster tune. I recognized her pale green dress as the one her sister had worn two years earlier — it was new, then, and those of us still too young to go to the fete had salivated at the notion of wearing something so fancy. Now there were hints of mud stains along the hem, and the left strap kept sliding down Doreena’s shoulder, but it was still as magnificent as the day we first saw it, glittering with the cut glass that encrusted the bodice.

“Pretty, how the light flashes off it,” said Ansel in my ear, and I turned to agree but found myself face-to-face with someone I hadn’t seen in a year.

He hadn’t changed, but the scarf had. When I saw him after my thirteenth birthday — weeks after visiting Hanso Jon in her swamp and almost losing my mother — he had already started creating a new scarf from the magic the stole from others. This one was almost twice as long now as the one hidden under my floorboards from anyone’s eyes and touch but mine. Every time I saw him, it seemed to get longer: Tonight it had four new stripes of burnt sienna, dark mauve, sky blue and light lavender: the same color as Mayoress Andreu’s gown.

“Of course, not as pretty as you,” he said, paternally patting me on the head with his long-fingered hand. “I see young Stephan’s totem came with you tonight, but not my scarf.”

I whipped around, looking for someone, anyone, to be staring at us. In a tent full of 18-year-olds, the grizzled Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes would surely stand out.

“They can’t see us or hear us, my dear,” he smirked. “But if it makes you feel better, we can step outside so I don’t feel like my ass is in your date’s face.”

Sure enough, Ansel was still sitting in his chair, drinking the sparkling wine while emphatically nodding to something Louie was saying. I rose from my place and walked toward the side flap of the tent and into the chilling night air.

“Do you have to appear at every major event of my life?” I asked.

“Only when you don’t bring me along. I see Stephan’s viper fang accompanied you tonight,” the Man with the Colored Scarf and Diamond Shoes tapped the gold totem hanging from my neck — a souvenir from watching Stephan burst into beetles five years before. “I feel dishonored, Axiom. Why not wear my gift, too?”

“It clashed with the dress,” I said dryly.

“Such is the foibles of fashionability,” he sighed, the gravel in his throat rattling ominously. “You’ve probably guessed by now that my gift to you was not given without expectations. I need an apprentice. I can provide the powers and direction, but this body of mine is no longer able to handle as — complicated — of deeds.”

“But I take it mine can?” I asked. In the dark I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel his breath pouring from his mouth and into my face.

“There’s nothing holding you back, Axiom,” he rattled. “The fete means you’ve reached adulthood, independence. Your mother won’t expect you to stay in your little cottage with her any longer.”

“Ansel wants me to marry him,” I blurted.

“You and I both know that’s not true,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf scoffed. “He asked you to the fete; he didn’t propose. Don’t lie to me, Axiom. I always know when you are, and it makes me angry.”

The breath in my face was suddenly cool compared to the heat building around my neck. At first I thought it might be anger, but soon I felt a searing pain against my skin. Reflexively I snatched the viper fang from around my neck and tore it away. My hand stung with the burn even after I had tossed the necklace away into the grass.

“Now,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf said, his words deliberate. “I don’t want to ruin your evening even further. Tonight you should go and dance with your date, and tomorrow I will leave you a little reminder that great things are expected of you.”

And with that, I was alone.

I should have been more incensed that no one had noticed I was gone, but it was hard to feel anything but numb the rest of the night. Every bounce of the light off of a glittery shoe made me wonder if the Man with the Colorful Scarf had returned, and I started seeking out dresses and robes that matched the new stripes on his scarf, paranoid that I might be dancing beside one of his newest victims. Mayoress Andreu was nowhere to be found the rest of the evening.

To combat the cottonmouth feeling, I drank as much sparkling wine as I could — it peppered my mouth and reminded me that I was still alive, still 18, and still expected to have a good time.

When Ansel took me home, his fingers fidgeting between mine.

“I hope you had fun,” he said. “I’m not sure you did.”

“It was a wonderful night. I think I just drank too much sparkling wine, is all.” The words drunkenly tripped out of my mouth.

“Can I kiss you goodnight?” He asked, and suddenly every worry I’d had all evening melted away as I nodded and he took me in his arms.

Everything I had read in books about first kisses pointed to a spark that ignited in your chest, or a hook that pulled you up from your belly. I kept waiting for one of those things to happen — to assure me that this was what I wanted, what I’d been waiting for — but all I felt was warm, wet human lips against mine.

I closed my eyes, thinking maybe that was the issue. It changed nothing at first, and then it became the stuff of nightmares as my mind turned to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes, snarling on the inside of my eyelids.

Ansel pulled away gently, and I turned to open my front door. The curtain in the side window shifted just slightly, and I knew my mother was still awake.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Ansel,” I said.

“Tomorrow, Axiom,” he nodded, absentmindedly scratching his bottom lip with his thumb.

Mamma was up, but the lights were off, and I allowed her the pleasure of thinking she had gotten away with watching us from the window by running right past the tiny parlor and up the stairs to my bedroom. Hiking my dress up to my waist, I dropped to my knees next to my bed and started scratching the wood floor for the loose board. A moment later, I had found it.

There it was, the striped scarf. And on the end of it, a new stripe — tiny, barely a hem: Aquamarine, like Ansel’s eyes.

It wasn’t the only new stripe, either. One the color of a blueberry stain; another mahogany. In the years I had left the scarf under my bed, another two feet of material had grown on it, capturing the colors of the magic I had subconsciously stolen from people by accidentally brushing against them in the market or grazing their hand when giving them change or loaning them a quill.

My fingers caressed the tiny aquamarine strip at the end of it. I think I fell asleep praying that it wouldn’t get bigger, even though I knew that Ansel likely had no more magic to give.

The next morning I awoke, suffocating under the heavy satin fabric from Mamma’s wedding dress. The floorboards looked undisturbed, and I wondered whether I had put them back myself the night before — it was hard to recall everything I did with adrenaline and sparkling wine coursing through my veins. As I lifted myself out of bed, a headache pressing behind my eyes, the sun caught a glimmer of something on my bedside table: A golden viper fang on a chain.

Excerpt: The housewarming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt: A brief description of the Tersus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True News reports: Beyoncé’s buffoon buys mummy

Once they had delivered the True News inkjet-printed onto fluorescent orange paper into every mailbox along Crystal Gorge Drive, Paul and Vic returned to the black Beetle parked in the cul-de-sac. Rhiannon had beat them there and leaned against the side, picking at the leftover spots of polish on her fingernails as if playing a scratch-off lottery ticket.

“All good, Rhi-Rhi?”

“A triumph, Vicky,” she said, flicking holographic paint chips onto the pavement. “Newsletters in every mailbox on Kinder Way, Bordello Avenue and Greeley Court. And now, let’s feast.”

The summer sun had had no problem turning the car into a hothouse, and Paul regretted wearing shorts as he sat on the burning leather seat and felt his skin toast against it.

“Lunch at Paul’s?” Rhiannon asked as she put the car in drive. She didn’t wait for an answer before peeling away from the curb and toward the main road.

This was how summer days were now that Paul had found Vic and Rhiannon. He didn’t believe a word of what they dished out into the neighborhoods — all this claptrap about three vampires living in Paul Rudd’s basement, the werewolf spotted on Paul Giamatti’s lawn, the succubus lounging on a float in the middle of Taylor Swift’s pool — but spreading obvious lies was worth finally having two friends who actually seemed to like seeing him every day. And to them, it was all very real.

“I’m digging into a story that Nicolas Cage was Rudolph Valentino’s familiar before being turned into a vampire himself,” Vic announced, like he was reporting on sewer testing or a city council meeting. “Might be ready to run for next week’s edition.”

Paul knew better than to bring up that Valentino, silent film’s original Latin Lover, had died at age 31 from an infection — hardly the mysterious vampiric ending that True News prided itself in publishing. But to his surprise, Rhiannon took the lead in bursting Vic’s bubble.

“You’ve seen the same photos of Cage as I have, and you know that if anything, Valentino was his familiar. The man’s been alive since the mid-1800s, at least.”

They pulled up to the ranch house that Paul lived in with his parents and sister, Joy Lee. To his dismay, the garage door was already open, and his mom was sweeping out the floor. Paul hated coming home to find his mother doing housework: It made him feel bad for leaving to deposit buffoonery in upper-middle-class mailboxes.

“Hi, Mrs. Lim,” Rhiannon said, getting out of the car.

“Beautiful day out, isn’t it?” Paul’s mom said. “So, what’s the poop?”

Paul’s face went pink. His mother had been born in San Francisco on August 5, 1973, but talked like she was in her prime during the early 1940s. But it wasn’t her WWII-era slang that made him nervous: It was any time Rhiannon and Vic had an opportunity to tell her what exactly the three of them were doing to pass time on the summer days.

“We’re hungry,” he blurted before either of his friends could answer.

“Well, Joy Lee’s inside. She’s been experimenting in the kitchen again, so you’ve been warned.”

“Mrs. Lim, I’m so hungry I could eat Frankenstein’s leg. No fear here,” Rhiannon joked as Paul pulled them inside.

Joy Lee had definitely been experimenting. A thin veil of smoke draped above the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of cooking oil and fried dough. Last week she had almost burned the house down making a blueberry tart. Today she’d been trying to tackle various deep-fried snacks.

“Potstickers coming to the pass!” She yelled, practicing for her self-determined destiny on Hell’s Kitchen. “Hope you’re all hungry — and don’t mind some slightly-burnt edges. The oil got a little hot.”

“Smells great,” Vic said as they each slid into a wicker dining chair at the kitchen table.

Vic held a bottle of Purell in his outstretched hand, and Paul gratefully accepted a squirt. Rubbing his hands briskly, he was reminded of how many paper cuts he’d gotten folding the pamphlets— by the time his hands were dry, his eyes weren’t.

Joy Lee brought a tray out bearing potstickers, egg rolls and what were probably supposed to be jalapeño poppers, though their cream cheese filling had started leaking out the sides.

“I heard Jay-Z bought the mummy that they just found in that excavated pyramid,” Rhiannon said, spearing a potsticker on a single chopstick. Paul watched as it fell apart halfway to her plate, spilling searing chicken filling across the table.

“Think I heard that, too,” Vic said. “Makes sense, really, seeing as he’s married to Beyoncé.”

Joy Lee perked up at the sound of her idol’s name.

“What’s Beyoncé got to do with a mummy?”

“Great egg rolls, Joy,” Paul said loudly, hoping to turn her 13-year-old brain back to her number-one passion. “Perfectly crispy and not too greasy,.”

“Beyoncé’s an immortal Egyptian goddess in human form,” Rhiannon said matter-of-factly. “The mummy’s probably a long-lost lover. And with Jay still needing to make things right after that Rachel Ray nonsense…”

“…Rachel Roy,” Vic corrected her.

“Right, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the last mummy they buy,” Rhiannon finished. “How’s this for a headline, Vic? ‘Beyoncé’s buffoon brings back Biblical-age boy-toy to beg forgiveness for bad behavior.'”

Vic chewed the idea along with a potsticker while Joy Lee laughed. Paul couldn’t taste anything as he waited to see how these two storms — the believers and the uninitiated — would collide.

“Sounds like a Bossip headline,” Joy Lee said. “You should write for them!”

The jalapeño flavor came back to Paul’s mouth. Rhiannon looked flattered.

“Thanks, but I prefer the real news,” she shrugged. “Say, kid, you haven’t read anything in your Teen Vogues about Harry Styles’ fairy circle, have you?”

“That’s an awfully homophobic thing to say,” Joy Lee said, taken-aback. As she turned back toward the kitchen, she looked at Paul with distinct disappointment that he could find friendship with someone that close-minded.

“She means real fairies,” Vic said. “Paul, haven’t you shared the True News lexicon with your sister?”

Paul’s face got hot for the second time, and it wasn’t because of the jalapeño now sizzling down his throat.

“True News?” Joy Lee asked, returning to the table.

“We run a paper,” Vic said. “True News: All the things the normies don’t want you to know. This week we covered the amazons in Gwendolyn Christie’s family tree, Hayley Williams’ secret past as a wood nymph, and how you can see a pixie reflected in the glass in Stanley Tucci’s latest cocktail video.”

“Sounds cool,” Joy Lee shrugged. “Let me know if you ever want me to introduce you to the phoenix our grandfather brought from Hong Kong in a shoebox. Grandpa worked on movie sets back in the day. Got the bird as a gift from Bruce Lee after finishing Thunderstorm.”

Rhiannon almost choked on an egg roll as she and Vic turned to look at Paul in disbelief that he hid this from them. He buried his face in his hands as a birdsong trickled from the living room.

Excerpt: Eddie Fitzjohn

We trudged up the stairs, each step echoing on the concrete. Every door was in varying degrees of decay: A couple paint chips here, a fully rusted door handle there. A few looked as though they belonged to tenants refusing to acknowledge they lived in a shitty rundown building — a “Welcome to Our Home” hanger dangled from Apartment 409’s door, while a wreath of wine corks clashed with the mint green of Apartment 419 — but for the most part, no one was keeping up appearances.

Raff stopped in front of Apartment 428. The paint was in good shape, but the knocker was missing. As he raised his fist to rap on the metal, I looked to see a letter jammed in the tenant’s mailbox. Part of the addressee’s name was visible, halfway out of the slot, and suddenly the identity of the “muscle” that Raff had been talking about was no longer a mystery.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re an asshole, but not that much an asshole.”

“We need Eddie,” Raff shrugged.

“Like I need a hole in the head, no thanks,” I said. My face was burning, my knees radiating with the desire to either kick him in the nuts or sprint out of the building and down the street — maybe both, in that order.

“What do you have against talent?”

“Nothing, if it doesn’t belong to your—”

I didn’t finish, because the door opened, and I came nose-to-nose with “talent.”

Here’s what I knew about Eddie Fitzjohn:

Eddie was born Edmunda Fitzjohn seven years before I was born Sylvia Erris, and by the time I popped out of my mother’s womb, she had a six-figure contract with a top ad agency as the face of Puppy Love, the hottest clothier for kids between five and eight years old. At 12 she had her own Disney sitcom called “Everything Eddie,” and by 17 she had renounced the Mouse, emancipated herself from her parents, and turned up at some small liberal arts college in Canada, where she extracurricularly ran an underground fight club for women sick of being prey at frat parties.

Graduation came and went, and she not only had two degrees in economics and philosophy, but also a blossoming mixed martial arts career that ended abruptly when she took to the internet to expose her manager as a pussy-grabbing sexual predator with a thing for 14-year-olds. He got three years probation and a life ban from the league. She got three months of internet trolling and a life sentence to self-imposed anonymity.

Of course, all of this knowledge was readily available on Wikipedia for anyone interested, which I wasn’t until a year ago, when I found out that Eddie Fitzjohn had been in a long-term relationship with one Raff Manning — and it had ended less than a year before Sy had entered his world.

Vignette: Still life of an in-joke

“Let me get that heifenweiser,” Charlie said once taking her coat from Leslie and slinging it over a director’s chair that sat next to the apartment door. Above it hung a dartboard with three darts pinning a picture of the president to it. At least, she thought it was the president: His face had been obliterated by holes.

Charlie turned into the kitchen, leaving her to meander into the larger room and get a better feel for who she had just decided to go home with, much to her friend’s chagrin.

It was a strange haven, to be sure: The blue fuzzy dice hanging off the ceiling fan. The stuffed Pusheen cat sitting on the window sill. A couch draped in a sublimation-printed tapestry depicting the final battle of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, still creased and reeking of the plastic that encased it during shipping. A desk cluttered with playing cards, dice, magazines, hand-scribbled notes, and a smooth copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that didn’t have a single mark or crack in the spine — so meticulously scattered that it looked to be on purpose, a still life painting befitting an eccentric nobleman-thinker. When she picked up one of the clear boxes of different-sided dice, she noticed a clean line of dust that had settled around it.

It felt like the scene from The Great Gatsby where one of the partygoers drunkenly discovers that his host’s books have never been read.

Charlie returned from the kitchen with two bottles of beer, each bearing a label written only in German and bearing a scantily clad woman sunning herself on the wing of a 1920s airplane.

“Cheers,” he said, clinking the neck of his bottle to hers. The glib-globs of the orange lava lamp on the side table reflected in his glasses, which were just big enough to be ironic.

Everything about this place seemed to have been procured and placed as part of some inside joke that Charlie had, and it made Leslie wonder if she had been selected to be the next oddity to be used for his personal image.

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.