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.

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.

The Davies family business

When Rhiannon Davies was 12 years old, it came to her attention that while her father mostly worked as a printer for the town, he was also a proficient train robber.

She learned this because she used to deliver the money he’d stolen to the townspeople, tucked underneath the fliers he’d printed them for church bazaars, wedding announcements, job openings, barn-raisings. Then, one day, the bottom of the box she was carrying to Glenwood’s General Dry Goods broke, and on the ground she saw not just flyers announcing a sale on tooth powder and brushes, but also four stacks of bills.

That night she forced herself to stay awake long enough for her mother and sister to go to bed. Girallt liked to sit by the fire while smoking his pipe, long after his wife had fallen asleep. Once she was sure he was alone, Rhiannon climbed out of bed and went to meet him in the parlor of their modest home.

“Pa,” she said. He jumped, not expecting to see her.

“Little Raven, you ought to be in bed,” he said, his Welsh accent rounding his words. He called her raven as a joke — she was blond as a canary.

“I dropped one of the boxes today,” she confessed. “It was the one for Glenwood’s. I didn’t mean to. The bottom just broke.”

“It was a rainy afternoon,” her father shrugged, but she could tell in his eyes that he knew she wasn’t worried about the broken box. “Did you lose any of the papers inside?”

“No,” she said. “I picked them all up. They were all bundled, so none of them blew away.”

“Good girl,” her father said. “So it’s my taking that you want to know why there was almost $500 in that box for Mr. Glenwood.”

She nodded.

This was how Rhiannon learned her father’s business. Mr. Pincock at the telegraph office would listen into wires being transmitted to the nearby Derby & Crane Mine, alerting them to a shipment of currency being delivered by train. Once he had the exact time and date the train was supposed to arrive, he would do the math on when it would be passing through the woods near their little town called Polk. Then he’d deliver a message written on telegram paper to Girallt Davies’ print shop, and Davies would print and deliver flyers to his crew: Mr. Doberman, who played piano at the saloon; the Sheffield boys who owned the first ranch outside of town. They’d meet the train, rob it, and bring the cash back to Polk for distribution. Mr. Glenwood did most of the work, tracking in his ledger who had received their cut when they came in to make their purchases for the week. He didn’t mind doing this service for free, mind you: Most of the money he handed out came right back to his coffers.

“But what about the sheriff?” Rhiannon asked. She delivered printed Wanted posters to Sheriff Queen all the time, and she didn’t want to see her own father on one of them.

“He gets his cut, too,” Girallt assured her. “Usually hidden under Wanted posters for Jesse James and the Sundance Kid.”

Rhiannon’s head was spinning. Every Sunday her family attended church. Her father would sing the loudest, and he’d lead a discussion over dinner that night about the pastor’s sermon.

“But the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not steal,'” Rhiannon said. “And Pastor Simon says—”

“Rhiannon, we’re not stealing from individual people,” Girallt said, rubbing his temples they way he did to massage out the frustration. “Remember when the Derby & Crane Mining Company opened their mine up the river from us? They didn’t care whether they put dirt or silt in the river, even though that water comes right down to our town. We had to find other ways to get water that was clean enough to drink, and a lot of us spent all we had in digging wells — wells that might not last long, depending how much water is underground. And that mine didn’t help us at all, just watched as our ranchers’ cattle died and we struggled to get what little water we could that wasn’t tainted with the filth they send down it.

“That’s who we’re robbing, Little Raven. We’re taking from the company that took clean water from us, and we’re building lives out of it. Did you see Paulie Simpson’s new wheelchair? It just arrived from a fancy New England shop that shipped it special to him because he had enough money to pay for it, thanks to us.”

The logic was enough to help Rhiannon push out of her mind the image of her father burning in hell alongside all other unrepentant thieves and robbers. Girallt opened his arms for a hug, and she ran into them, breathing in the tobacco smoke. Her father stroked her head and whispered:

“Pastor Simon gets a cut, too, by the way. I hide them under his church bulletins.”

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.

Excerpt: A stop at Sy’s dad’s place

Dad’s eyes look Raff up and down before nodding at him to sit on the couch. Behind the brown irises I can see him rereading his memories of the texts I sent him — both those written as I beamed in the back of a taxi after our dates, and those sloppily typed while crying over how this man broke my heart — and he’s trying to piece together exactly why I’ve brought him home for dinner.

“Should I be nice?” He asks me.

“Yeah, you can be nice,” I say, taking my usual seat in the overstuffed armchair that gives both him and Mom back pain.

“OK, then,” Dad says tepidly. “You’ve had a long day on the road. How does a drink sound?” 

“I’ll take the darkest beer you have in the fridge,” I say.

“Chewable brew for Sy,” Dad says, “And how about you, Raff? I’ve got beer, cider, wine, whiskey — actually, I just got this new 12-year scotch—“

“Not that nice, Dad,” I say.

“Beers all around, got it,” Dad nods, bending down into the small fridge hidden inside one of the entertainment center cabinets. If I had my way, it would be lukewarm tap water for the non-Harris in the room, but Dad’s kinder than me.

~

“I’m heading to bed,” I say. “Thanks for having us, Dad.” I give him a hug and make my way to the door, expecting Raff to rise and follow, presumably give Dad one of those hearty, endearing handshakes. 

But he doesn’t move.

“You going to bed, too, Raff?” I ask. It’s hard seeking clarity on this, as we’re not even staying on the same floor of the house.

“Yeah, in a minute.”

“We have another long drive tomorrow,” I say.

“I know. Don’t worry.” He smiles one of those disarming smirks that makes me do nothing but worry. “I just want to talk to Mr. Harris a bit longer.”

I shrug and walk out of the room, closing the French doors behind me and heading upstairs.

When I was 15 and got my first potion book from Mom, I concocted an amplifying polish that I then applied to the doorframe of those very same French doors, which allowed me to hear whatever was going on inside all the way up in my room, where I kept the jar containing the other half of the polish. Once the doors shut behind me, I race up the stairs to the back of my old closet where, embedded in a box of magazine clippings meant for some decoupage project that never got finished, I find the polish and dipped an ear close to the contents.

“—but I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Raff is saying. “I need you to hear that, because I think you might be the only one who could possibly believe it.”

“Why, because I also fell in love with a witch?” Dad asks calmly, understandingly. The way he’d listen to my excuses about failing a math test because Jason Werth was trying to copy me and got us both in trouble.

“How did you know you were actually in love with her and not under some kind of hex or something?” Raff blurts out. 

“I believe it’s a little thing called trust,” Dad says. “And faith. It seems you need a little of both.”

“Raff, I am very happy with my wife. We’ve been in love with each other for three decades. We have a beautiful, smart daughter. I have never tasted anything weird in my food or felt any strange pricks in my sleep — not that I ever expected to.

“I’m not saying that you and my daughter are meant to be and your suspicions and paranoia have deprived you of true happiness. In fact, I believe she could be a lot happier with someone who has more faith in her integrity as a person. But take this advice from one grisled old man to a young one: Stop thinking you’re such hot shit that a woman like Sy would need use an ounce of her power to bewitch you, let alone elect to.”

Raff mumbled a “Yes, sir,” thanked Dad for the hospitality, and the French doors creaked open as he left the room and his footsteps faded in the direction of the first floor guest room. 

I put the lid back on the jar and hid it away in the box again. As I stepped out of my room and into the hallway to wash up before bed, Dad came up the stairs. He passed me without a word — just a wink.

Excerpt from “Stet:” Hibiscus blossoms

It was like when you think you smell smoke in one inhale, but then never catch a whiff of it again — but you’re sure you smelled it, and now you’re looking for fire.

I find the fire: She’s dressed in all black, form-fitting and intimidating. Her dark hair is exactly as Agatha had described it, cropped in the back and dangling long in the front, stick-straight and glossy.

As she steps up on the porch, heeled boots clump-clumping on the soft wood, something in the corner of my eye hooks my attention. The blossoms on the large potted hibiscus bush have puckered like raisins, wilting down under the weight of whatever demon she’s brought with her.

“You must be Agatha’s editor,” she says, dark cherry lips lifting, as Agatha said they did, to reveal perfect white teeth. “She spoke very highly of you.”

“Only one of those things are true,” I say, settling for a tight smirk that won’t betray my coffee-yellowed smile. “From what Agatha told me, you must be Maeve.”

“I’m certainly not Handel,” she smiles. “He’s finishing a call in the car. Another client needs our help, and rather desperately, so we won’t take up much of your time today.”

I wonder if the client actually exists or is their escape route when I start asking harder-hitting questions than Agatha ever posed. I’ve listened to all the interview recordings, remember: I know the softballs she lobbed about whether they believed in an afterlife (obviously) and what their most challenging house was to purge (“They’re all challenges, but they’re all learning opportunities”). I prefer to play fast-pitch without a catcher’s mit.

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that,” I say.

“No, I don’t suppose we will,” Maeve said. “Unless, of course, you want to come with us to this client?”

Now I understand how Agatha fell under her spell, as I feel a strange pull around my shoulder, as if Maeve has put her arm around me to gently guide me toward their car, even though she’s still standing three feet in front of me. I have no doubt now that the client is fake; that I’m being tricked into my own abduction; that Handel is in the car, ready to drive me to an undisclosed location where I’ll either die or be driven mad as Agatha was; and that all of this is exactly as it should be, exactly as I want it to be.

“Good? Good,” Maeve said, turning on a heel. “We’ll take you with us. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

As we walk down the steps, I feel something crunch under my foot. It’s one of the hibiscus blossoms, just moments before a Tropicana pink saucer, and now a shriveled, veiny ball of tissue player crumpled beneath my heel. A puff of black smoke seems to cough out of it as my shoe grinds it into the floor.

Axiom Thorne: The first night on The Hydra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#CampNaNoWriMo Vignette: “Homo sapien bitterus”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt: Agatha’s apartment

The apartment yawned stale, sunbaked air in our faces as the maintenance man unlocked the door and swung it open.

“When was the last time you saw her?” I asked. In the dim glow of the hall light I could read the embroidered script on his work shirt: “Chuck.” I didn’t even know there were people under 50 named Chuck anymore.

“She was home when I had to fix the smoke detector last month,” Chuck said. “It kept going off in the middle of the night, waking everyone up on the floor.”

Adam handed him the thrice-folded $20 as he passed him on his way across the threshold as a thank you, and Chuck got the hint that it was also to guarantee privacy for our investigation.

“I’ll wait downstairs for you so I know when to lock up,” he said, leaving us to explore alone.

From the entrance, Agatha’s apartment looked like the typical 20-something writer’s studio, with style taking a backseat to convenience. Three mismatched pressboard bookshelves groaned under paperbacks and stacks of Vanity Fair, Wired, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, Ms., Bitch, and Fast Company back issues. Her vinyl couch had likely been assembled with an Allen wrench that came with it in the IKEA box. A mattress and box spring was jammed like an afterthought into the corner and covered in a faded kaleidoscope duvet cover, sans duvet inside. A plate, red wine glass, skillet and wooden spoon collected dust on a drainboard, and the refrigerator hummed under a layer of half-formed grocery lists and someday-I’ll-need-it business cards.

“You must have really made out in the divorce agreement,” I said to Adam. “Or did you just get all the good furniture?”

“We didn’t have any ‘good furniture,'” Adam replied shortly, continuing his way into the apartment.

Walking in behind him, I felt like I was easing myself into a bubble bath drawn with ice water. The small studio looked like it belonged to an ambitious 20-something writer, but as I submerged deeper into the apartment, it became clear that before her disappearance, Agatha had been descending into a chaotic obsession.

The notes on the fridge weren’t grocery lists: They were seemingly unrelated words and phrases that formed a cloud passing from the fridge, across the backsplash, around the corner and filling the wall above a desk that looked to have been rescued from a curb on garbage day. There were no webs of string, no highlighted portions like the conspiracy walls in the movies, and this perhaps made it more ominous: Agatha didn’t need to connect these things visually because either she was able to keep them straight in her own head, or because there was really no reasoning to why she had written “Caravan” and “chauffeur’s daughter” in the blank spaces of a Chinese takeout menu, then pinned it next to a torn green Post-it listing “Burt’s Bees / KIND bars / fire plug on Hollyhock Lane.”

“Did she used to do this when you were together?” I asked Adam.

He shook his head, mouth agape at his ex-wife’s handwriting scrawling across the scratch-paper wallpaper.

“Sometimes she’d start a notebook, use about five pages of it, then put it in a box and start a new one,” he said absentmindedly as his eyes flitted from note to note. “Always said it was the creative in her and that lots of writers did that. The only book she’d actually fill up was her—”

Adam stopped and looked at the desk. It was covered in mail (both open and sealed), receipts, packing slips, a set of knit gloves likely left there since last winter, and more notes like the ones on the wall. And that was just the top layer of the bric-a-brac cluttering it.

“She kept a journal,” Adam said. “Not every day, but she’d fill it up in a year and need a new one. I’d usually get her something nice for Christmas — leather-bound, or hardback — but she’d always pick up a composition notebook from Target or something. Said there was less pressure to be perfect that way.”

He started shuffling the papers on the desk like playing cards, stacking them and lifting them and gently placing them on the floor. More little notes slid on unseen air drafts, yelling “MORE COBWEBS!” or matter-of-factly stating “Ranch = spirits from 1960s.”

As he meticulously shuffled through Agatha’s desk contents, I began to wander the rest of the tiny apartment. One of her dresser drawers was ajar, and I slid it open, slowly as if hoping Agatha wouldn’t notice — which was silly, of course, as she wasn’t there.

Nothing seemed to be missing inside the drawer: Rather, it was hard to tell if anything was out of place, as the entire thing was filled with sloppily folded T-shirts and sweaters. Close to the top was the green argyle pullover she’d been wearing the day she came to tell me about meeting someone at a housewarming who would make a great story. My stomach flipped at the thought that if I had just said “no,” I wouldn’t be bribing her maintenance man to let me and her ex-husband into her apartment so we could figure out what happened to her.

“Hey, I found something,” Adam said. I turned around to see him holding not a composition notebook but one of the flip-top reporting notebooks we stocked in Deus Ex Machina‘s office supply room. “Doesn’t look like her journal, but the notes in this are a lot more coherent than the ones on the wall. And there’s a whole drawer of them, look.”

Excerpt: The housewarming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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