Vignette: The Tinkerer

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

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

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

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re the Tinkerer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Axiom Thorne: Four days to die

I’m not sure what the word is for walking amongst people who are all expecting you to die in four days. I’d say “surreal,” but there’s nothing dreamlike about everyone around you, in a morbid mix of concern and curiosity, checking their pocket watches and captain’s logs to see how close you’re getting to your predicted expiration date.

“Everyone I sleep with dies in two weeks,” Everwick told me, as if it would scare me. As if he doesn’t realize what I had to do to get here, what I’ve had to overcome to become his counterpart. Give me a break, sailor boy, and show me to your bed. I’ve waited to die before.

When I was 15 the Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes told me that what powers I had displayed up to that point — the death of the Baker’s Boy, my mother’s own suspended animation — was merely a two-step compared to the bolero I would be able to perform.

As long as I survived the metamorphosis.

I walked around for one week feeling nothing. On the eighth day, I had a migraine that grounded me to the back stoop of the house. No one found me for three hours until Momma arrived home, and it took a sip of soup and three cups of her mother’s Elven tea blend to get me back on my feet. For the next two weeks, I felt an odd twinge in my neck once or twice, heard an unexpected crack or pop of a joint here and there. Then came the invisible knife that inserted itself into my stomach and amused itself by twisting anywhere from an inch to five revolutions any time I let food or drink pass my lips. I could barely make it up the stairs to my bedroom when the fourth week began, and from then on I was confined as an invalid, with Momma as my nurse. She said I slept four days straight, then cycled between yelps and dozy whimpers on the fifth. My memory places Ansel at my bedside for some of the days, but who knows if it was him, my imagination, or the Man with the Colorful Scarf distorting his own appearance.

At the end of the fourth week’s sixth day, I awoke as Momma peeled a wet compress from my forehead.

“Still so pale,” she fretted, clearly to herself, as she hadn’t realized I was awake.

I opened my eyes, and she jumped backward, then recovered herself like any good mother does when shocked but afraid of alerting her child to any sort of danger.

“What is it?” I asked. My entire body was tingling, but the pendulum ticking down the time until my death had frozen mid-swing, To some, it may have been threatening: Any second it could drop, sending me into the dark abyss that I had stared into for the past 27 days.

Momma didn’t say anything. She squeezed my hand almost as hard as she squeezed her eyes shut, and rose from my bedside so she could turn her full back to me. I straightened up from my pillows with ease, all trace of weakness vanished. My heart’s metronome clicked steadily.

The mirror above my tiny dressing table betrayed what she was keeping from me. The muddy brown of my eyes had dissolved into an crystal green that glowed against the bright orange sunset exploding through my window. No other physical attribute had changed, but inside I could tell that nothing was the same. Just looking at the mirror, I willed the light to fade, and soon it was as if a large cloud had covered the sun’s fading light. I looked at Momma and wished that the fraying cuff of her sleeve would mend: As she bent to light a candle against the new darkness, I watched the threads weave back together and finish themselves in an intricate lace. I turned to the bowl on the bedside table and boiled away the water within so that the dry rag was plastered against the bottom of the basin, like it had been left there for months in the summer heat.

The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived the metamorphosis, I would be more powerful than my mother. More powerful than her mother, or her mother’s mother. Their magic had diluted through the generations and was little more than amusements now, leaving me cursed with nothing but minor prestidigitation. I could barely conjur sparks, while my ancestors could blink wildfires into existence. But The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes had promised that if I survived, I would awaken with capabilities that they had never even fathomed. And survived, I had.

“Axiom?” My mother had asked once she had steeled herself against my flaming eyes. Her tone was forceful as she tried to hide the quiver in her voice. “How are you feeling?”

“Momma,” I said, looking at her repaired sleeve, then at my own hands, pale and ghostly in the flickering candlelight. “I feel like a god right now.”

Excerpt from “Stet:” Agatha comes home

I walk back across the street to my apartment after two more beers. The summer days have started stretching into evening, so when I roll into bed I sink my face into the pillow against the orange sunlight streaking the wall through the slatted blinds.

A phone rings in the distance, getting louder. When I lift my face off the pillowcase in desperate need of a wash, I see that the orange has brightened into synthetic white as city lights replace the setting sun. Somehow I find my phone woven into my cocoon of sheets.

“This is Mary from Moundsville Mental Hospital,” says a voice on the other end, too happy with itself for conveniently holding a name alliterative with her place of employment. “We’ve got a Miss Agatha Lydecker here, and she needs to be taken home. You’re on her list of emergency contacts, so we thought you might be available to pick her up?”

We arrive back at my apartment in what seemed like no time at all, and I tuck her onto the couch in the living room. She falls asleep quickly, and I return to my room, this time flopping onto my back. I close my eyes and try to let my breathing drop into the same rhythm as the humming icemaker in the kitchen.

But I can’t fall into sync. I’m too busy listening to the silence coming from the living room, which screams that something’s not right. I get up and pad down the hall to the couch. Agatha hasn’t moved. I go back to my bed, assuring myself that she’ll be fine, at least until she wakes up in a stranger’s apartment in hospital scrubs, the only clothes they had for her. I don’t know why they couldn’t dress her in what she wore when she was admitted.

I’m finally an exhale away from icemaker meditation when I hear a creak in the living room. With a sigh I lift myself out of bed, but I don’t make it down the hall. Instead, I’m frozen at my bedroom door, looking down the ten feet of empty space at where the living room is, only to find that I’m not looking at empty space — I’m watching Agatha pirouetting on the other side.

Before I can call out to her, she stops spinning, facing the kitchen like a statue. She slowly pivots to face me, and a shaft of midnight city light slices across her face to illuminate her eyes, narrowed in concentration. Or is it anger? The pupils reflect the light like a cat’s, and there’s no other word for what I’m seeing:

Ghostly.

I back away, unsettled but refusing fear. Agatha continues to watch me, the light framing her scowling eyes before she starts to pirouette again, turning a few times, then stepping forward into another turn, slowly coming down the hall toward me. I hear panicked breathing and think it’s her. It’s me.

I inch backward into the bedroom, about to close the door, but decide to have one more peek. She’s just standing there, scrubs hanging off her slight frame like rags off a scarecrow’s frame.

I close the door anyway and get onto the bed, contemplating my options. My phone is on the kitchen table, where I left it after putting Agatha to bed. Below the window is a 30-foot drop. My walk-in closet is better defined as a gaze-in closet because it’s so full of boxes, clips and dirty laundry. As I sit among the sheets reeking from sweat spent on nightmares about what happened to Agatha, I realize that now that I’ve learned what happened to her, I’m terrified of her.

Then I hear her call my name. The voice is so faint that it must be coming from the couch. I hear it again. Part of me wants to answer — is sure that I must have just been seeing things, letting her recounts of ghost-hunting get to me, or letting guilt invade — but I can’t move. I try, but I can’t. This isn’t the sleep paralysis I usually have the night before going to press. This is being literally too scared to move.

She calls my name again. I can’t budge. Maybe she’ll roll over and go back to sleep, wiped out from her ballet interlude in the hallway. Maybe she’ll be confused and leave the apartment altogether. Either would be a win at this point, I think, but the Good Person inside slaps my conscience on the wrist. I’d answer her, but I can’t form words. My mouth is locked shut.

There’s my name again. It’s louder, but still a whisper. It’s right in my ear, and I feel breath on my face and eyelashes against my temple as I hear it. I gain the ability to blink, and I take the opportunity to crush my eyes shut against the sound, the feeling, the smell of sweat-rotted sheets steeped in insomnia. The knowledge that somehow, Agatha is right next to me, and I won’t be able to fight her off or even talk her down because I don’t know how I got this way. She got this way, I mean.

My fault, I whisper again in my head.

“Yes, it is,” I hear Agatha’s voice say, clear as day. My eyes explode open, and I see her illuminated by the light intruding through the windows, her face maniacal as she laughs at me, frozen on my bed. Dense smoke curls up the walls, creeping out from under her feet as it shrouds both of us but doesn’t stifle the sound of her laugh, which turns into angry screams, then just screams.

It’s me screaming. I’m screaming as I wake up in my apartment. The city lights illuminate stripes of the past tenant’s wallpaper dotted with wallflowers that refuse to dance to the icemaker’s hum. I’m drenched in sweat.

Telling myself it was a dream, I step into the hall. No pirouetting reporter at the end. I creep forward. No Agatha on the couch, either. My keys are still on the hook next to the door, and I take my phone from the kitchen table. Satisfied, I return to bed, trying to convince myself that I must have left the phone there when I walked in from the bar, even though I haven’t slept without it next to me in five years.

Why Wade Higgs decided to rob trains with his two brothers, his cousin and a man named Squirrel

When Wade Higgs was twelve years, four months and three days old, he made two discoveries that would change the course of his life for the coming two decades.

The first was that his family was poor. His new clothes, though clean and whole, were consistently handed down from his older brother, Trent, and his old clothes went to his younger brother, Job. Dinner, while hearty and tasty, was often a simple vegetable slop, as pork was pricey and deer was dear. Every season came with fewer cattle on the ranch, and every winter came with fewer logs for the fire. And when all of this came to his attention, he made the second discovery:

Whiskey tasted good and made him feel better.

Clark Roberson from two ranches over had come by on a new horse, newly sired by his father’s workhorse and another neighbor’s mare. He was 14 and mean as a horsefly, never leaving behind an opportunity to gloat in the face of those who worshipped the ground he walked on. Until this day, Wade was one of them: Convinced that Clark was the epitome of young manhood.

“Like it?” Clark asked as Wade’s eyes widened big enough to take in the horse. “Pa says he’s mine. Bet you’ve never seen one like this, Higgs.”

By this time Trent had come out of the house. Trent was the oldest and biggest, and yet somehow the good Lord hadn’t found the time or space to fill him with wisdom. As tall as he was, at nearly 6-foot-6, he was dreadfully short on temper, except when it came to animals. No one had seen such a skilled horse and cattle wrangler. Terms like “prodigy” didn’t get used often in Polk Canyon, but it was a common synonym for Trent Higgs and his ability to tame any mustang or drive any herd when he was just ten years old. Now cresting 16 years old, he dreamed of having the money to start his own ranch, but spent his days scrutinizing the ranchers and farmhands in the region who showed little respect, let alone skill, in their trade.

So naturally, Trent wasn’t impressed by the way Clark kept standing in his stirrups.

“Horse won’t like that,” he grumbled, glaring up at him.

“Horse doesn’t know what it likes,” Clark said. “Because I haven’t taught him yet. He’ll get used to it. That’s the nice thing about being able to afford a new horse — he can be anything I want him to be, not some ratty old hand-me-down.”

Trent must have decided arguing with someone two years younger and likely smarter wasn’t worth his time, because he turned back toward the barn. But Clark wasn’t done yet.

“All those mangy beasts you keep on this ranch, I’m surprised you haven’t all got fleas,” he shouted. “Especially considering you’re so poor you all wear the same clothes. Tell me, Wade, you wearing your brother’s old underwear?”

Wade’s cheeks grew hot. Until now, it never occurred to him that families didn’t normally pass everything among one another. He couldn’t remember the last new shirt or pair of trousers that had come into the house, and wondered if, indeed, any had since Trent had grown to his full size.

Sensing his work was done, Clark stood in the stirrups and kicked his horse in the sides, making it rear and charge away. Wade coughed in the dust they kicked up.

“Trent?” Wade asked, voice cracking. It was that time of his adolescence. “Are we poor?”

“Yeah,” Trent shrugged. “I guess.”

Wade didn’t know why it bothered him so much now. Nothing had changed about the way they lived since that morning when he woke up under a quilt that his mother had sewn from scraps of flour sacks and old shirts. The only difference was that now someone had given it a name, “poor,” and the shame of it all came crashing down on him.

Job came limping out of the house. He was nine, and the Biblical origins of his name seemed to determine his luck. Just six months before, he had tried to climb the large tree out back and fallen, breaking one of his legs. It hadn’t healed properly — it was now shorter than the other one — and Job was still getting used to walking around on uneven legs.

“Ma says Mr. Gilligan is coming for dinner,” he said. “She says we have to wash up.”

Mr. Gilligan was from the bank in town — a friend of the family and a quiet investor in the Higgs Ranch, even when it had its rough years. Whenever he came for dinner, there was sure to be a ham at the table. The promise of sweet, salty meat made Wade’s mouth water, even as his stomach churned at the thought that the only reason his family would be eating something so valuable was because someone else had given it to them.

That night, Mr. Gilligan did arrive with a ham, as well as a bottle of whiskey. Sitting around the table, he told funny stories from the town in Polk County, joked with the boys, and played checkers with Job until Mrs. Higgs announced that supper was ready. The bottle of whiskey stayed in the kitchen, incentivizing the diners to finish their meal quicker than usual. When the plates were cleared, Mrs. Higgs rose to take them into the kitchen and retrieve two glasses, one for her husband and one for her guest.

“Mary, get yourself a glass,” Mr. Gilligan admonished when she returned. “I want both of you to be in on this toast.” She did, and when she came back Mr. Kelly lifted his drink and proclaimed “To old friends, whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Trent had gone out back to put the horses away before the wolves came out. Job was playing checkers against himself — something he had become quite accustomed to during his recovery — in the corner. And Wade’s ear was pressed to the door. Something about the uncharacteristic gift Mr. Gilligan had brought to their home was weighing on him.

“Mary, that was one excellent meal,” he continued. “It breaks my heart that this could be my last one for a while.”

“What do you mean, Sam?”

“I mean to say that the bank is moving me on,” he confessed. “They’re concerned with the amount of train robbing going on in these parts, so they’re shutting down the Polk Canyon office and moving me out to Kodak City to open a new branch that’ll serve both areas. That area’s got a couple of marshals that’ve been keeping an eye on things. Only one robbery in the last two years, actually.”

Wade new his father was too proud to ask what would happen to the family with out Sam Gilligan’s monthly dinners, but not tonight.

“That’s the end of the money, isn’t it?” John Higgs said.

“I’m afraid that with the new branch, the bank’s going to be keeping a closer eye on my expenses.” Sam shrugged. “I know I wasn’t giving you much, but it was still more than I care to try to slip under their noses. I’m not saying this is the absolute end — just an intermission.”

“Winter’s almost here,” Wade’s mother said wearily. “What are we supposed to do for food?”

“I’ll send some goods down,” Mr. Gilligan said, his voice fading away behind the pumping of blood inside Wade’s ears. No money from the bank meant no food. No food meant they’d starve. If there was ever a time to try whiskey, now was it, he reasoned, and he took a full swig from the bottle.

It burned so bad his eyes watered, but he liked it. He liked the distraction the pain gave him from the even more searing reality that his family might not survive a winter without crawling to people like Clark Roberson’s family for help. Once it subsided, he took another swig. Then another.

By the time Mary Higgs went back into the house, her son had finished half the bottle and was sitting under the worktable, hiccuping. She eyed the remaining whiskey, understood immediately what had happened, and led him across the room to his bed tucked under the stairs to the upstairs loft. Wade’s mouth was too numb to tell her he was sorry.

The next morning, he picked up the newspaper that Mr. Gilligan had used to wrap the ham. Despite the haze of meat grease and a hangover, Wade made out the words of an article about a train that had been robbed by a small group of bandits just outside Fort Jerusalem and remembered what their so-called family friend had said about Kodak City being relatively safe from such nefarious activities.

And that’s when he decided he would change that.

He saw Mr. Gilligan one more time, twenty years later. He’d lost count of how many trains he’d robbed by then, but this was the first one he’d stopped on its way to Kodak City in which a bank employee was charged with sitting with the safe in the front. In this case, it was the man who had abandoned the Higgs family before the longest winter in history — who had sent a single box of goods before disappearing from their lives entirely. He hadn’t even shown up to bury his old friends John and Mary Higgs when they died just before spring broke that year.

Struggling under the weight of age and guilt, Mr. Gilligan’s slow hands and old gun were no match for Cousin Elton and The Squirrel, who subdued him easily. When Wade opened the safe, he emptied it into his bag and made sure to take the bottle of whiskey from Mr. Gilligan’s own satchel bag.

“Here’s to friends,” he said, uncorking it with his teeth and spitting the stopper into Mr. Gilligan’s lap. “Whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Wade Higgs’ theme is “Old Number Seven” by The Devil Makes Three:

Axiom Thorne: The last time Ansel saw me

Five days before I boarded the ship that would lead me to The Tenacious Sea, Ansel saw me for the last time.

It’s important that you understand it like that, because Ive seen him several times — in my dreams, at pubs, working as a phantom member of our crew. I could have sworn that was him getting a lap dance on the brocade sofa at the brothel where we chased down Darvin.

And yet I can’t really remember all the details: The violet-blue eyes are there, but sometimes I line them with blond eyelashes, sometimes with brown. Sometimes his nose is broken so it bends left, other times right. On cloudy days my mind gives his stubble a reddish sheen, even though I don’t remember if that’s what I wish he’d had, or what was real. At this point, seeing him is like seeing myself, standing on the deck of the Hydra. The important parts are memories of my reflection, the details filled in with imagination.

Not just my imagination, as I’m learning. His imagination. The Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes. My mind’s been at the mercy of his whims ever since he draped those colorful stripes around my shoulders and showed me I could kill the Baker’s Boy with just a careless thought. I know that because the last time he appeared to me as I boarded the Hydra after my night on the Reiver, I was able to walk right through him.

The last time Ansel saw me, I was already halfway down the pier. The sun was beating down that day, combusting with the magic my mother had woven into my hair so that it glowed like the white light at the center of a flame. Days like these I’d typically pin it up under a kerchief to keep anyone around me from going blind or, worse, wanting to know my secret. Mamma didn’t like people knowing we had magic.

But I was free now. Mamma was dead. Ansel — well, I still haven’t told you the circumstances of my leaving him. Snippets of the sob stories I’ve told others, sure, but not the real story. In any case, all you need to know is that Ansel was quite aware it was me twenty feet ahead of him at the docks, but if he was as wise as he always seemed, the last thing he was going to do was try to stop me. He knew what happened the last time he’d tried, and if he didn’t, all it would take was a walk through Crestbalm Cemetery and find his family’s plot covered in freshly planted grass.

Things got dark there, didn’t they? Well, they got dark that day, too. It was about two weeks before I left town. And I won’t get into it now, so you won’t know who’s recently buried in Ansel’s family plot, or even if there is someone buried there within the last year, or decade. Because I’m not really sure, either.

The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes just laughed his rock-tumbler chuckle in my ear and told me to say all of that. He’s the only one who really knows what happened to Ansel, if anything.

I hope Ansel is safe.

I hope Ansel is alive.

Most of all, I hope Ansel is real.

Vignette: “Sure, why not?”

They got married because he was afraid of dying alone and because she was the girl who always said “Sure, why not?”

“Chinese takeout tonight?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Vacation to the Adirondacks?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Marry me?”

“Sure, why not?”

Jump off that cliff for me?

Sure, why not?

But deep down, she actually loved him. It was a strange situation, having to keep you love for you husband a secret from him, so as to preserve the very easy-going mystique that had attracted him to you and landed a diamond ring on your finger while vacationing in the Adirondacks. It was the price she had paid all along to be the “Sure, why not?” Girl — the girl everyone wants to be friends with. Lovers with.

Let me finger you in the back of a cab?

Sure, why not?

The wedding had been delightfully laid-back. No one, not even the bride and groom, really took it seriously. She wore a $15 dress from Macys’ Juniors department, and he wore dark jeans and the button-down from his graduation photos. Their first dance was a poor attempt to recreate the twist scene in Pulp Fiction, but of course he ws no John Travolta, and the Chuck Berry record they were using skipped every 17 seconds.

Five months later they were right where they thought they’d be: Arguing, making up over macaroni and cheese, and picking up her birth control pills at the pharmacy every month. Until one day he couldn’t take it anymore, this informal marriage where he’d come up with all the ideas and she apathetically agreed with them. So he came up with a solution and presented it at the dinner table over leftovers.

“Want to have a baby?”

He sat there, waiting for her answer.

Axiom Thorne: Waking up on the Reiver

The Reiver. Morning’s first light.

Captain Whatshisname — Everwick, as it turns out, now that the wine fog clouding my brain has dissipated — is far from the first man I’ve fucked, but he is the first one I’ve shared a bed with. Darvin always retired to his own pallet inside the closet, and Ansel and I spent nights out in the woods, curling into each other on top of soft mud or leaves rather than sheets and a down mattress. Everyone else has been a passing thrust in the dark corners of bars or alleys, and that’s how I like it. It gets the job done without any risk of attachment.

I probably wouldn’t have stayed all night on the Reiver if it hadn’t been for Everwick’s blunt warning as he stood from his chair, wrapping his own colorful striped scarf around his neck, all debonair-like. It’s a scarf just like mine, given to him by a figure who sounds suspiciously similar to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes.

“Everyone I sleep with dies,” he had said. I expected him to smirk. Instead, he was stone-faced, the only movement on his face a wisp of hair caught in the sea breeze.

That makes two of us, I had thought, remembering Darvin’s screams as the dragon ground his body between its teeth. I didn’t know what had happened to the handful of others after they had slipped in and out. They were dead in those same bars and alleys, for all I knew. As for Ansel: His fate was worse than my own death. But I haven’t told you all of that yet.

“Everyone dies,” I had shrugged.

“Horrible, agonizing deaths,” Everwick countered.

Sounds fun, I had almost said, but he was walking away now, his scarf catching the wind and snapping like a sail. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to follow, but I did — it would be easy to blame it on my ego, as my shipmates were back at the Hydra, probably taking bets on how long I’d be, but I’ll admit that there was something about Everwick that was irresistible to me. Maybe it was the idea that he was a kindred spirit, a warlock locked in the same war with the same devious patron.

An open door awaited me; and an open door shut behind me as soon as I crossed the threshold into Captain Everwick’s chambers.

It did flit through my mind that if he hadn’t detected the obsidian trilliant hidden literally inside my chest as I stood before him in my armor, he might certainly notice it once I was lying flat on my back, undressed and unguarded. But as things had progressed, it became clear that finding the match to the black stone he had brandished before me on the deck was the furthest thing from his mind now that I was in his bed. And eventually it was just as far from mine, too.

I wake up to soft light filtering into the ship’s cabin. Everwick is still asleep, his arm draped over my waist. His hand is disturbingly close to where I inserted the trilliant into my chest, and I swear I feel it beating against my bones with longing to meet its companion, which I had last seen disappear into the captain’s fist. Or maybe it’s just my heart, fluttering through feelings of fear, dread, ecstasy and…no, just those three. Nothing more concrete, and certainly nothing to do with having any sort of feelings toward the man lying in bed with me.

Even without prior experience of sharing a bed with someone, I know I can’t move his arm without waking him up. So I shift and turn into him, smelling the salt on his skin. It’s different than Ansel’s dried leaves and spice scent — fresher, and metallic with Adrenalin. In some ways I like it better: It’s the scent of someone who’s trying to pretend he’s chasing something, rather than being chased. The trilliant in my chest beats harder.

I close my eyes, tempting sleep to come back to me. The window isn’t bright enough for it to be much later than first-light, and the crew of the Hydra is probably still sleeping off the drinks from the night before. They won’t miss me.

Just as I’m about to doze off, Everwick begins to stir. His arm tightens around me and pulls me closer as he murmurs, “Still alive?”

“As far as I know,” I say, my breath warming his cool skin. “Did you want to sleep with me just to see if I would survive?”

The logic makes sense — if it is indeed our shared patron killing off our lovers, it stands to reason the Man (or, in Everwick’s case, Woman) in the Diamond Shoes wouldn’t kill both his magical servants just because they fucked each other. It seems like a morbid form of forced matchmaking, but after experiencing Everwick’s prowess in bed, I won’t complain.

“What if I say yes?” Everwick asks, a mischievous grin cutting through his morning stubble.

“Then I’d say you’re smarter than I thought,” I say, pushing him over on his back so I can straddle him. “Or at least more pragmatic.”

“Thanks, I guess?” he says, pulling me in for a kiss. I oblige for as long as I feel like before getting off him, getting off the bed, and snatching my breeches from the floor.

His stare almost wills my clothes out of my hands, but I don’t capitulate. Once I’m back in my armor of snakeskin, metal, and colorfully striped wool, I’m at the door.

“Until next time?” He asks.

“Who says there’s a next time?”

“Your whip does. You left it on the chair.”

I didn’t do it intentionally, but protesting that fact would only convince him that it was a scheme to be invited back. Once I secure it to my hip, I go straight to the door. The creak of the bed indicates that Everwick is just a few steps behind me, and before I can open the door, his hand pushes it harder into the jamb.

“Don’t tell her, er, him — them — about this, will you?” Everwick asks. It’s a plea, not a threat. “I haven’t spoken to them in 30 years, and now isn’t a good time for a reunion.”

“I promise,” I say, and I mean it. I don’t feel like looking into the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes today — or possibly any day after this.

I leave without a kiss goodbye, but I feel Everwick’s eyes on my back as I walk up to the deck. Out of his gaze, I smile into the wind while passing his gold-cloaked crewmates on my way off the ship, and it’s a grin that stays in place all the way back to the Hydra’s gangplank. In my private glee, I forget to take the tiny step up on the platform and find myself sprawled out on my belly, facedown on the walkway.

As I start to push myself up to my feet — face warm with the sting of embarrassment and palms warm with the sting of several splinters — my eyes catch on my own reflection, shining back at me hundreds of tiny times from a man’s jewel-encrusted boot planted just inches from my face.

“Have something to tell me, Axiom?” His gravel voice asks. I bring myself to my feet, pushing his helping hand away. My arm goes right through him, but he’s still standing there.

“Yeah,” I say. “Leave me alone.”

I walk through him and up toward the ship. The trilliant in my chest beats hard.

Excerpt: Lucinda Ellis meets the Higgs Boys

She opened her carpetbag and dumped it onto the dirt, shaking loose every pocketwatch, coin, ring, necklace, money clip, eyeglass, and paper money she had collected from the passengers on the second car. The Higgs Boys scrambled to stomp their foot on the bills before the wind could carry them away. Wade Higgs crouched down to inspect a delicate ruby ring Lucinda had taken from her talkative seatmate.

“Ma’am, I mean no offense,” he said, mesmerized by the light flashing off the red stone. “But we’re called the Higgs Boys for a reason. We don’t usually, er, have the pleasure of doing business with matrons such as yourself.”

“Not unless you count that old whore you bedded down in Ludslow last week,” one of the boys interjected.

“Mr. Higgs,” Lucinda said, ignoring the chuckles of the men around her. “I don’t believe you’re looking at the situation holistically. You might not have worked with a woman before, but doubt you’ve ever picked this much treasure off a train car before, either. So my question for you is, don’t you think it might be worth including me in future endeavors?”

Wade rubbed his mouth as he stared at the ruby he still clutched between pinched fingers, as if the answer was in the jewel. Lucinda certainly thought it was — of all the things she had read about the Higgs Boys, they never if rarely held up the first-class passengers on the trains they robbed. Looking at the tiny group of five men, she had a sense it was a lack of manpower, rather than will.

“She’s right, Wade,” said the man who had been wearing the paisley kerchief. Job was his name, if Lucinda remembered the Wanted posters well enough. “There wasn’t much in that safe today, and there wasn’t much in the one last week, either. If we can take a walk down those first-class cars, could be more than enough to tide us over.”

“Yeah, so why don’t we just do that ourselves?” Asked the Higgs Boy who had referred to Wade Higgs’ recent conquest. “Why’s she got to do it?”

Lucinda was prepared for this question because she had asked it herself when planning her escape. “Because they don’t expect a lady passenger to be carrying an empty carpetbag with a plan to fill it,” she said. “Or a Colt with the ability to use it, for that matter.”

She removed the gun from the lining of the bag where she kept it, spinning it around a finger as she drew it, just like her father had taught her.

In a reflex, the four standing Higgs Boys drew their own revolvers, poised to shoot. Lucinda’s whole body clenched in anticipation, but her mind didn’t lose focus. She spun her Dragoon back to her side, placing it in the carpetbag and raising her arms up in surrender.

“I said ability, not intention,” she said. The Higgs boys still refused to lower their weapons. Lucinda tried to cover up her fearful trembling by shrugging and returning her gaze to Wade, who was now counting a stash of bills secured in a brass money clip.

“The way I see it, Wade Higgs, you’ve got two enemies: Time and men,” she continued. “If you have me ride that train every week as a passenger, I can case the car — determine who’s got the best goods while we’re on our way out of town and know exactly who to stick the gun at once you and the Boys board. I can make quick work of it while you crack the safe, and we can both disembark together to split the goods.”

“You may have a point,” Wade said, finishing the count and tossing the clip back in the dirt with the rest of the loot. “Must be the wisdom of your years.” The Boys laughed. Lucinda joined in this time.

“Speaking of which,” he continued. “If you forgive me saying so, aren’t you a little old to start a career in train robbing?”

Lucinda smirked and lowered her arms so she could unpin her hat. Through the veil she could see the four guns simultaneously lift higher, more threateningly, as their wielders tried to determine what she was going to do next.

Both hatpin and hairpin came out easily. Lucinda shook her head, a cloud of talcum powder catching on the wind as her dark locks freed themselves from their tight twists. Once her hair was loose, she chanced a glance at the four gunmen. Job’s mouth was agape, unlike his counterparts, who had all tried different methods of concealing their surprise to varying degrees of success. But Wade Higgs wasn’t coy.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, chuckling. “You’re a real pretty lady, you know.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lucinda said, cheeks warming. By her parents, yes, but never a man with the kind of smile and reputation bared by one Wade Higgs.

“What a waste of a pretty face,” Wade said. “And there’s no dress shops or sundry shops out in the woods where we camp. No real soap, either, come to think of it.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

Wade Higgs turned to his boys now.

“Well, gents? Oh for all that is green in God’s good wallet, put your guns down!”

All four guns were holstered immediately. As Job’s gun lowered, his voice rose.

“I don’t like it, Wade. We’ve got a good thing here. Inviting someone new — lady or not — is like adding too much salt to the soup. It’ll ruin it, and there’ll be no way of fixing it without throwing the whole thing out.”

“Was that a remark on dinner last night?” asked the broadest of the men. “I told you it was Elton who put the extra salt in the soup, not me.”

“And I said I didn’t know you’d already done that, Trent,” Elton, presumably, said, gripping the brown sack he had worn over his head on the train and shaking the burlap at his cousin.

“I take it the food could improve?” Lucinda asked Wade.

“Ma’am, you have no idea,” said Job. “We ate hearty last night, but we were up all night guzzling from the water skins.”

“And delayed this morning from pissing it all out,” said the final man who hadn’t spoken — the wiry, clean-shaven one with a scar cutting through the hair on the side of his head.

“I’m a decent cook,” Lucinda shrugged. “If you let me join your crew, I’ll make sure you never dine on salty soup again. Daddy always said I made the best venison stew this side of the Mississippi, with biscuits to match.”

“Biscuits?” Elton asked.

“Venison?” Job asked, subconsciously licking his lips.

“Whatever meat’s available, really,” Lucinda said. “Mushrooms, too, if meat isn’t an option.”

“Wade,” said the clean-shaven man. “I think we’d be fools to pass up at least this woman cooking us dinner tonight, don’t you? Because there’s no way I’m having one more spoonful of that salty slop Trent forced down our gullets last night.”

Trent looked ready to grab his gun, but stopped short when Wade barked, “Fine.”

He walked up close to Lucinda, so close that his coffee-tinged breath heated her face. She stood up straighter. He wasn’t much taller than her — maybe a few inches — and on the uneven ground, their eyes were level with each other. Wade shifted to the side a little so he’d be taller than her again.

“You’ll cook dinner starting tonight,” he said. “We usually take a week or two between robberies. See if you can last that long—”

He paused, and Lucinda realized he didn’t know her name.

“Lucinda,” she said. “Lucinda Ellis.”

“Wade Higgs,” he said. “That there is my brother Job, and the big fella is my brother Trent. The redhead is our cousin Elton Walters, and the baby faced bast— I mean, man — is Jimmy Clearwater, but we just call him The Squirrel on account of how fast he climbs trees.”

The Squirrel gave a mock salute.

“Well, don’t just stand there, boys,” Wade said with a sigh. “Let’s put this loot back in the bag and get back to camp. Lucinda here is going to cook us dinner.” He raised his eyebrows at her before turning on a heel and walking deeper into the forest.

Maybe the old adage her mother had spouted was true, after all: It certainly seemed like the way into mens’ train robbery gang was through their stomachs.

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

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

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

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

Return to the drive-in: A quarantine story of new hope

He was just settling in to the nightly news something sparked in the corner of Frank Goberwitz’s right eye. The sun was coming up again, but that couldn’t be right: It had finally just set for the day.

It couldn’t possibly be the sun, Frank decided. He rolled his wheelchair to the glass to get a better look and saw a white beam of light stretched across the empty lot next door, illuminating the giant white wall that usually did nothing but block the site of the traffic on North Avenue. “Welcome to the Cascade Drive-In” the wall now read, and as it came into focus, a cacophony of horns below applauded it. Tipping his head forward, he saw that at least a hundred cars were now parked on the crumbling asphalt.

Frank resisted the urge to harrumph his way back to the TV and instead slid the door open and rolled out onto the balcony. It was even louder out here, with the sound of motors and laughter wafting upward on a perfume cloud of popcorn and exhaust fumes.

Three years ago when he had moved into the Sunrise Hills Retirement Complex, he had been guaranteed that the drive-in next door had been closed and purchased by a golf course developer. That sounded fine by him: He didn’t play anymore, but he enjoyed hearing the clinks and pops of the clubs hitting the ball. Being 14 floors up meant it was unlikely for a whiffed shot to end up in his soup, but he would still enjoy the greenery below.

Except the golf course was still not built. The lot remained, as did the abandoned drive-in screen, which loomed like a ghostly monolith just halfway out of his sight line when he sat in his usual spot in the living room. Well, he thought, at least it’s still quiet.

“Ladies and gentleman,” a loudspeaker blared from the back of the lot. Frank jumped at the sound. “After fifteen years, we are glad to be back! Welcome one and all to the Cascade Drive-In Theater, and thank you for your patronage! Are you ready for a show?!”

The car horns blared again. Frank looked over to see Marjorie, his chatterbox next-door-neighbor, come out on her own porch. She clutched a cat in her arms, and Frank sneered at it, knowing that it was the source of the never-ceasing scratching sounds coming from her side of the wall they shared.

“What a night!” she said. “Isn’t it exciting?”

Frank grimaced. There was a reason he liked the last three months of quarantine: it meant not having to respond to niceties from people he didn’t know — or care to know, for that matter.

The cars continued to roll into the lot below as the loudspeaker shouted directions.

“Make sure your radios are set to Station 727.91 AM so you can hear the sound of the picture, though I’m sure many of you could recite it from heart. If you’re hungry, turn your hazards on, and one of our staff will come by with the concessions cart so you can make your selections. They’ll leave your order on your car hood — please remember to let them get six feet away before you exit your vehicle to retrieve it. Snacks in the time of quarantine, am I right, folks!?”

A couple car horns guffawed as Frank saw dozens of red lights start to flash below. Elaborately decorated bicycle rickshaws deployed from the back of the lot, zooming to each car that had its hazard lights ablaze.

“Wonder what the movie is?” Marjorie asked, more to her cat than Frank. He saw her slip inside her house and emerge quickly, the cat replaced by a small battery-operated radio. “I hope it’s one of those John Wick pictures. I love those, don’t you? The fight scenes are so good, and the dog is so cute. And Keanu Reeves is so handsome!”

Frank didn’t know who the hell John Wick was, possibly because he hadn’t seen a movie in some time that wasn’t edited for public consumption on cable. The quarantine had caught him with a hatred for modern technology, which meant he was at the mercy of the network schedulers — possibly another reason he had devolved into the crotchety old bastard that looked back at him from his bathroom mirror. While the rest of the world still zoomed around in its cars and video chatted with family around the world from their pristine kitchens, Frank had developed intimate friendships with Alex Trebeck and Pat Sajack as he waited for one of the nurses to drop off his tray of daily meals. His daughter, Cindy, lived across the country and used to call daily, but after a month of having to listen to his pissing and moaning, she had started only calling on Sunday afternoons. He didn’t mind. Pretending to be happy was exhausting.

Marjorie’s deck chair clattered closer to the railing, and Frank saw her hop up on top of it and prop her chin on her folded arms that rested on the balcony railing. Her feet dangled inches from the ground, one of her house slippers barely holding on.

“What a nice surprise,” she said into the evening breeze. “The first night in a week that it isn’t raining, and we get a movie!” She turned to look at Frank, and the light from her apartment sparkled in her eyes. “It makes me feel closer to humanity, somehow, even though I know they’re all down there. We’re all experiencing something at the same time, together, like a real community.”

“Sure,” chuffed Frank, who backed off the porch into his house. The news anchors were finishing their report about how quarantine had been extended for another two weeks: No gatherings of more than 10 people in an enclosed space. No bars or restaurants open for the public. No visits to senior centers unless you’re a health care provider.

Frank sighed as he turned off the TV and the side table lamp before pivoting his chair toward the bedroom door. Outside, he heard Marjorie’s tinny radio screech with the 20th Century Fox theme, followed by an orchestral explosion that blast his thoughts back to 1977.

He was 39. Cindy was 10 and desperate to see the new movie that had all the kids at school talking. Frank’s wife — God rest her soul — thought it would be too violent. “Wars” was right there in the title, after all.

The Addison Multiplex Movie Theater was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and he took his daughter’s hand as they slid into the fourth row from the back just in time for the show to start. The lights dimmed, the 20th Century Fox searchlights lit up the screen, and then everything went black. John Williams’ fanfare sent a wave of adrenaline down his spine as yellow words floated up the screen.

That same yellow scroll now lit up Frank’s entire living room as it towered three stories high across the lot. Cars blared their horns in excitement. Marjorie applauded from her perch. And Frank shot out onto his balcony in time to see that it was time for Princess Leia to race home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that could save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…