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.