Vignette: Delilah, Spectral Resident of Haythorne Mansion Events and Memories Center

Delilah missed orange juice cans. Orange juice didn’t come in cans anymore — at least not in this new kitchen, with every surface now sterile stainless steel. There wasn’t any food in this kitchen anymore until the people in white coats arrived with clear boxes of sliced vegetables, stacks of boring white china, and unlimited cans of Sterno.

She missed rolling her waist-length black hair — freshly washed, maybe freshly ironed — up in the cans, pinning it there for an hour, and watching as she undid it all and the locks would fall now tit-height, perfectly bent in on the ends, the exact way Max liked it.

Max was her boyfriend at the time of her death, see. He took her to all the swinging pads for parties. She missed the parties too, come to think of it. And that low-cut orange jumpsuit she wore, with the brass and turquoise chain belt that hit just at the wide part of her hips. She bought it in a small boutique just down the street from this house she now called home. She should have been wearing it that night in 1973. She would have, had she known she’d spend the rest of eternity in the clothes she stepped out in that night.

As it was, she had worn the two-piece yellow set that everyone thought looked exactly like what Cher wore to the Oscars just months before: yellow chiffon with beading that showed off the flat belly she had finally attained on her steady diet of cocaine and not much else. She relished the reactions to it more than the outfit itself.

And now she was dead, and when people saw her, it wasn’t the scandalous clothing that inspired the gasps and double-takes. It was the fact they were faced with the spectral figure of a woman who had snorted a line and exhaled her life in the smaller guest bathroom at a hopping party at 666 W. Walcott Street on June 2, 1973, and now stepped out on any given afternoon to find herself in the middle of Haythorne Mansion Events and Memories Center during a wedding, anniversary party, family reunion, Super Sweet 16, bat or bar mitzvah, graduation party, christening, First Communion, bachelorette party, bachelor party, funeral luncheon or — and this was the most disgusting of all — an intervention.

So she did what any good cocaine overdose victim does for 50 years after dying in a house bathroom: She started pilfering whatever drugs she could find in guests’ purses and pockets.

It’s not that the pocket squares hiding joints, hollow tampon tubes of blow, sticker books of acid, Altoid tins of molly, or sunglasses-case-turned-heroin-kit did much for her. They did nothing, actually. Delilah just needed the high of causing a bit of mischief to brighten her days. She also liked the privacy of that second bathroom and didn’t need another fool OD-ing and joining her domain here in the house.

It was crowded enough in here with Walter tsk-tsking her from his perch on the upstairs banister, wearing that filthy coat from 1918 and going on and on about the goddamn Spanish Flu.

Dottie’s Plot for Revenge

Yvette and her brother Mark sat across from the cemetery director, flipping through the pamphlets and doing the math in their heads of how much the endless fees would probably add up to, and whether it would be worth it.

“I suppose it’s odd,” Yvette said, tapping her toe nervously. “Most people who come here want to bury someone, and here we are, wanting to, to—”

“Exhume,” her brother finished for her.

“It’s really not that strange,” the cemetery director said. “We move people around all the time. Last month we had a couple remove both their sets of parents so they could be cremated and relocated to Georgia.”

“Well, we’re just hoping to move her a few plots over,” Mark said.

About fifty yards over, as she’d specified when she shattered the mirror over his fireplace, blasted them with Frank Sinatra and threw their Thanksgiving turkey out the window. The dead know what they want, but they have to resort to dramatic measures for anyone to notice.

~

This is a soap opera.

This is a soap opera starring nothing but people who are dead.

The setting: Somewhere on a different plane from here.

When Dottie Truman died, she knew her husband still had enough years ahead of him that he would need to find another companion. So rather than curse him to another two decades of lonely nights in front of late night television, she used her dying breath to tell Peter Truman to fall in love again.

Which he did, to a lovely woman named Beatrice Harper. And Peter and Beatrice were very much married and in love for fifteen years before they passed just weeks apart at the ages of 97 and 91, respectively.

Dottie watched all of this from her little ethereal plot of the afterlife. She cried with a mix of joy and sentimentality at their sweet little wedding at the Beech Tree Shoals Retirement Home. When Peter went first, she prepared to meet him with one eye on his funeral, where Beatrice had to be helped by her son Tyrone and stepson Mark across the rolling field of the cemetery. Dottie was so busy checking her face and straightening her dress that she didn’t notice right away that instead of in the grave next to hers, he was being interred half a football field away, surrounded by gravestones marked “Harper.”

But when she did finally notice? Had anyone been near her own grave, they would have noticed the dirt above her coffin roil like the angry sea. Later on the groundskeeper would think that the black bear rumored to roam the woods around the perimeter of the cemetery had gotten in and started foraging.

“Trying to do my job for me?” He muttered as he set about seeding the grass in the disturbed dirt. “Wrong plot — no one’s due to be buried here anytime soon.”

See, Dottie was buried with the Trumans in a double plot that her husband was supposed to return to once he died. But that bitch Beatrice either didn’t know or didn’t care, and now she had absconded with Dottie’s husband of 49 years to her own plot.

As far as the logistics of the afterlife went, the location of someone’s grave didn’t affect where they could or couldn’t go in the next plane of existence. But that didn’t matter to Dottie: She was confident that being buried with his second wife, away from the Truman family plot and away from Dottie, was doing nothing to coax him back to his first love and the mother of his children.

And anyway, the Trumans had always been a stuffy bunch, and Dottie hated being buried alone with them for all these years. The least Peter could have done, if he had known he’d be buried with some Boca Raton bimbo named Beatrice (which, of course, he didn’t, but try telling Dottie that), was put Dottie in the ground with her own family.

So after five years of waiting, and waiting, and waiting in the afterlife for her husband to come back to her, she decided to get her childrens’ ever-divided attention. It started with turning their TVs at random times, to random channels, but she was so appalled at what she saw across the channels that she decided that was causing more harm to her sense of the world than good. So she resorted to other poltergeist-inspired chicanery: She would tip over a coatrack (which would be blamed on the dog), turn on lights during the night (which would be blamed on the house’s electrician), explode soda cans (which would be blamed on PepsiCo) and burn food in the oven within minutes of it getting hot (which would be blamed on whoever was cooking). Eventually she decided that Thanksgiving would give her the biggest and best audience, so she went nuts: Shattered a mirror, changed the stereo to her favorite Frank Sinatra tune and blasted it, and even threw the half-cooked turkey out the window before using the grease and drippings in the pan to write on the walls “BURY ME WITH YOUR FATHER. LOVE, MOM.”

Dottie wanted to add “AND MOVE THAT BITCH BEATRICE TO THE PLOT NEXT TO THE BATHROOMS” but ran out of grease.

Unfortunately, now that she was watching Mark and Yvette sit with the cemetery director, that wasn’t quite a possibility. Peter Truman, it turned out, had been buried with his second wife on one side, and an empty plot on the other. And that plot was saved for Beatrice’s son, Tyrone.

Who was far from dying.

And who had moved off the grid, never to be heard from again.

At least, not until Dottie decided she had to pay someone a visit. It was time to introduce someone to Old Blue Eyes, backed by a full orchestra, belting out “Strangers in the Night” at top volume around 3 a.m.

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.

Vignette: Floating chance

The body floated, bloated, down the river toward the sanitation facility where it would presumably get caught in the filter and cause a nightmare kind of day for the plant supervisor, who’d have to call the cops, then sweet-talk his team into helping guard the scene until the investigators arrived, then wait for all the photos and little yellow tent markers to be placed before he could get on with the day’s duties.

He’d act all day like it was an inconvenience, like a large tree trunk had gummed up the works rather than a former person But then he’d go home and cry into a tall glass of tequila-less margarita mix about the fragility of human life and all the regrets he had — how he’d never seen Spain; how he’d never applied for that MFA program; how he should have asked Stephanie to marry him when they were teenagers so he could be divorced with three kids by now instead of dragging the scent of sweat and sewage into his empty studio apartment next to the Kwik and Save.

And then he would fall asleep — floating, bloated, almost inches off his sheets as he dreamt of the life he’d have if he had taken all the chances he’d been offered, before he’d have to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

Nightmare No. 8952: Hurricane

Last night I dreamt that I was in some kind of complex — it reminded me of the split-level Des Moines house my cousin, her husband, and my two second cousins lived in when I was about nine or ten. We visited a handful of times, and what I remember most about it was how even though there were few windows in the basement, it still felt bright because of how many blank white walls there were.

Maybe that’s not how it really was, but that’s how I remember it. White blank walls, white berber carpet that stuck to calices that formed on our heels from playing outside in our bare feet.

I wasn’t in their house, but I was in a house like it. It was bigger, one level. Lots of different rooms and empty desks. There were a number of faceless people — not horror-movie faceless, just unknown — rushing around, leaning mattresses up agains the few windows set within the blank, white walls as the wind and rain picked up outside.

We were all about to die, and we all knew it. 

As the rest of the dream cast yelled orders at each other and quaked at the creaks and moans the house was making in the hurricane winds, I had one objective: Get my phone to work so I could call my parents. But I couldn’t get my phone to work. I’d plug it in to get it to power up, and it wouldn’t have a signal. I’d unplug it and move around the house, among the hustling mattess-movers, and it would lose juice and go black. At one point, I thought my phone was working and yelled: “Mom, Dad, we’re not going to live through this. I love you” only to find that it had dropped the call moments after connecting.

All the while, walls started collapsing in as people around me ducked under the empty desks and mattresses to take cover from the storm. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to two of the most important people in my life.

I’ve never felt dread like that, both during and after. I’ve had my share of terrifying nightmares and stress dreams, but not in recent memory have I had one that made me wake up feeling not scared, but doomed. I was sleeping on my couch last night because of house guests, and I woke up shaking, my fingers clawing through the crocheted loops of my blanket. Despite the clock reading 4 a.m., I wanted to text my mom, just in case.

Never will I assume that having that nightmare last night counts as understanding the fear, sadness and hopelessness that fills people actually facing these certain-death situations without any chance to say goodbye — mass shootings being (despicably) the first example that comes to mind. If this is how my body and mind reacts to something in my subconscious as I sleep, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be wide awake and facing the very real threat of leaving life and loved ones behind.

Short story: Septimus

I don’t mean to sound like Hemingway when I tell this story, but he got it right when it came to war. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that war is the death of love and the absence of decency.

Evanna and I were very much in love. That’s not her real name, of course, but even though she’s gone, I don’t want to betray her memory. We met in bootcamp before being shipped out. If she told this story, she would say it was sunny and warm — one of those all-American days where everyone has a hot dog in one hand and a slice of watermelon in the other. But I’m telling it, and I’ll say it was a downpour day, where the mud swallows your boots whole and the rain soaks right through your fatigues so you feel like you’re swimming rather than marching through the compound. Squelch, squelch.

We didn’t know what was in store, and at that moment, we didn’t care. Evanna — Evie, I’ll call her, because that fits her personality far better — Evie and I locked eyes and never once looked away. Of course, we couldn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t allowed anymore by the time we joined the ranks. I heard it was once, but that was long ago before I was born. Before Evie was born.

Still, there were nights where the explosion of nearby fire fights were our lullaby and the shouts of our fellow women crooned us into a frenzy. Those were the nights our hands would touch while we were sleeping in our beds — our separate beds. Just that little bit of contact, that little bit of intimacy, was enough to get us through the most chaotic nights.

We weren’t always the ones in the tent those nights. I remember, God love her, Evie bringing me a Styrofoam mug of hot cocoa one night when I had watch duty.

“It’s the desert,” I said when she handed it to me. “It’s 95 degrees and I’m in full combat fatigues.” The last thing I needed was a hot beverage. But Evie knew that.

“I wanted to give you a little comfort, you dope,” she said, sarcastically frustrated. That was something about Evie; she had the patience of a lamb but the wit of wolf.

I looked down into the cup of instant cocoa and see little clumps of pink and blue goo floating on top.

“What the hell is that?” I asked, playing along in our game of mock annoyance.

“We didn’t have real marshmallows, so I raided the Lucky Charms,” she said. “It might not be perfect, but it’s hot cocoa. It’s comfort.”

So we sat in the dirt together, taking hits from the hot chocolate and avoiding sporadic hits from enemy artillery and hiding our embracing hands under the sniper rifle I had trained on the horizon.

No one caught on, much to our surprise. If they did, they never said anything. The women in our unit were good people. Except for Babs; she had a mean streak wider than Midcountry. It didn’t stop her from being a good soldier, though. She saved Evie once from a landmine. Sometimes I wish she hadn’t. It might have spared Evie from what eventually did happen to her.

On the dawn of our last day on tour, a dozen or so insurgents stumbled upon our camp. You could tell they didn’t intend to fight, but what else could they do when we had already started shooting? Evie was out behind the tent, doing her tai chi or whatever she did at sunrise every day. When Babs fired the first round, Evie snapped to action. Unfortunately, she had sacrificed protection for flexibility and had left her Kevlar vest and helmet in the tent that was now on fire from a grenade.

There was nowhere for her to run, so she found me. I covered her in a makeshift foxhole we dug in the sand, sheltering her under my body as I shot into the desert. We were down to three insurgents when a grenade landed in the foxhole with us. God bless us, it didn’t go off, but it gave us the fright of our life and we scrambled out, right into the line of fire.

We somehow evaded the AK-47s, but it wasn’t the end. Someone yelled that the enemy was down to one, but he was somewhere out there, hiding or running away. After almost 20 minutes of staying low — Evie and I had found refuge between two supply crates and the mess tent wall — we started to come out of hiding. Foolish us, we thought the enemy had run off; there was no sign of movement.

“We lucked out,” said Evie, smiling. “I guess we’ve got good karma, because we really lucked out.”

“Thanks to all that Buddhist stuff you do,” I replied. “You know, your tai chi outfit almost got you killed.”

“’Almost’ being the operative word,” she smiled. “But you saved me. You really did.”

Knowing we were still in the confines of the crates, she leaned in to kiss me, something that we had done a lot of the night before after the raging party our bunkmates had thrown for us. In fact, we had gone a little far the night before; it was pure serendipity that no one walked around the back of the mess tent.

At precisely the moment her lips were half an inch from mine, the last insurgent resurfaced and decided to fire of another round.

It hit Evie in the side of her head.

There wasn’t much that we could do other than get her to the nearest hospital. The man who shot her was long gone, using the scramble to get her to safety to run away. That’s what we could all guess.

That was before they removed the slug engraved with Omni-Corp’s logo from her cheekbone, which had shattered, bone fragments and shards slicing her sinuses and nerves to bits.

So when you ask why I’m here, I guess it’s because of that. Omni-Corp killed Evie. It wasn’t the bullet or the blood loss — although the surgery almost did kill her. It was when the doctors found traces of me all over her body from the night before, our last night together, and knew exactly why Omni-Corp had sent out a sniper to take care of one of their finest. And because the doctors were obligated to put it in the report, I was brought in for questioning and tortured until I admitted that Evie hadn’t just borrowed my clothes. That we were not only comrades in arms but also comrades in the arms of each other.

When Evie’s reconstruction surgery was complete, they didn’t let me see her. I wasn’t even allowed in the hospital. After my interrogation, my injuries were critical, but they sent me an hour away to a different hospital to get cleaned up. Our squadron was forbidden from speaking to either of us. We were both discharged from the service, but almost a year apart so we wouldn’t find each other on the boat back home.

I found out about Evie’s death by complete accident. My mother had died, and I was at her funeral when I saw a headstone bearing Evie’s last name, which was rather unique. Two men were at it, and I asked if either of them knew her. Just from the way one put his hands in his pockets, as if trying to stuff a memory away out of sight and mind, I knew.

She was buried on the coast after “complications related to her injuries” had killed her. Complications, I learned later, that involved a long rope and an overturned footstool.

Since then, I’ve tried to be like Evie, looking at the sunny side of the rain cloud, but I’ve failed. The human race is one fucked up bunch of animals; love this way, don’t love that way. I guess that’s why I go by the nickname ‘Septimus’ from that Virginia Woolf book; after his friend, his other half, died in the terrors of war, Septimus didn’t have any hope left. I have no hope, but I keep trying to get some. Maybe one day I’ll be able to rejoin the human race and not see them as vile and dictating. In the meantime, I still drink cocoa with Lucky Charms marshmallows on hot days because I need to know things might get better. I need that comfort.