Found Fiction: Faulty microchips and fraying leashes

On my walks I pass Hub personnel in gray and operatives in white. It’s not just the jumpsuit colors that differentiate these two groups, however. It’s the way they walk. Nurses, operators and armed orderlies either zip past like there’s a constant emergency to tend to, or saunter as if to flaunt their freedom to be apathetic. Operatives only have one setting that I’ve seen yet: Robotic, purposeful strides taken at the whim of some gray-clad operator sitting at a computer terminal.

But the one thing both have in common is that they put me on edge to the point of avoiding them at all costs. No one has asked me what I’m doing or why I’m in a certain hallway, but I know they’re staring. Waiting for me to go rogue, because that’s what MacArthur has warned them about: The rogue Operative code named Omaha with a faulty microchip in her head, insatiable curiosity and a fraying leash.

This excerpt was found in planning notes dated 2014 for my book Omaha.

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: Now entering Polk Canyon

For the second time in her life, Lucky Ellis found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were buttoning the back of Lucky’s dress, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to robbing the rails, which meant he had ultimately influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or shoot him in the gut.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said. 

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.” 

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt odd to be wearing trousers underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take. 

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay tangling themselves into giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked. 

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker. 

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up. 

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open. 

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her suede workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that Lucky had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist, exposing the Dragoon at her hip.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in her ebefore the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

For the second time in her life, Lucky found herself being cinched into one of Penelope’s corsets. The bone and lace contraption had been lying at the bottom of the former prostitute’s knapsack, and at least one of the ribs had snapped over time.

“I don’t know why I bothered keeping it,” Penelope said. “Not much use for feeling pretty out here.”

As they were finishing putting Lucky together, Rhiannon came riding back to camp. She caught sight of Lucky, gave her an approving nod, and turned to Ester to tell her what she had found. After traveling five miles along the singular road that made up Polk Canyon, she finally found the one person who was willing to help: A man named Mark Roberson who seemed scared to even talk about the Higgs Boys until she assured him she was no friend of theirs.

Lucky recognized the name for a story Trent had told her long ago at the saloon in Clarkstown. Mark was the older boy who had made fun of Wade — in some ways, it was because of him that the Higgs Boys even took to the rails. In some ways, he had influenced Lucky’s own destiny. She wasn’t sure if she should thank him for it or hit him in the mouth.

“It’s about seven miles out,” Rhiannon said. “A tiny ranch house with a half-painted picket fence along the front of its property. I rode past it real quick to get a look, and sure enough it’s there. Old tree, half dead, in the front yard, and a large barn out back. Not sure they raise animals anymore, but I spotted a woman in the kitchen window, so there’s certainly someone home.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get shot,” Lucky said.

“Guess that goodbye hug from you did me some good,” Rhiannon winked. “You’re looking real pretty, Miss Ellis. Penelope sure knows how to make a silk purse from– well, maybe not a sow’s ear, but definitely a leather-and-linen rough rider.”

“Let’s hope I can still ride a horse in this,” Lucky said, hitching up her skirt and climbing on the horse behind Rhiannon. It felt weird to be wearing her pants underneath a dress, but it gave her more flexibility in transportation.

She and Rhiannon rode out with Ester and Penelope flanking them. Esperanza stayed behind to watch the camp and wait for Singing Bird to come by for her cut of the week’s take.

As they approached the stretch of land called Polk Canyon, Lucky started to understand how a man’s original habitat can affect his behavior as an adult. The land was parched, the houses dilapidated. Even if this community had been thriving in his childhood, it hadn’t been one of grand ranch homes with lush gardens and pastures. It looked like the residents had landed in this spot of desert dirt and tried their best to make a living off of it, rather than move forward looking for better opportunities. The houses were sunbaked, many with roofs that had caved in and fences that lay flat on the ground. The barns out back all appeared abandoned, with whisps of hay collecting in giant tumbleweeds that skated on the wind.

They passed one house that was still in operation: Laundry was hanging on a line, though the shirts and sheets were gray with age and tattered on the ends.

“That’s where Mark Roberson lives,” Rhiannon said, nodding to it.

If Mark had really been as wealthy as the Higgs Boys supposed he was, that fortune was long gone. Also in the yard was a single mule, braying for a supper that likely wouldn’t come, from the look of its ribs rippling its taught skin. Lucky thought she saw Mark in the window, glaring out at them.

“What if he warned her?” Lucky asked.

“I thought you said Mrs. Higgs didn’t like men coming on her property.”

“But she knew Mark,” Lucky said. “He grew up down the street.”

“If he warned her, I guess we’ll soon find out,” Rhiannon shrugged, clucking her tongue at the horse to make it move quicker.

They passed three more ranches, all boarded up or burned out. No wonder this was the place Wade had chosen to hide his riches: No one was here, and no one had any reason to show up.

The Higgs ranch was no better off than any of the other houses in Polk Canyon. The fence was painted white on the right side of the house, but whoever had been charged with the task had stopped when they got to the front gate, as the rest of the picketing was a charred black wood. Past the gate was a yard of dirt and scruff. A lizard darted out from beneath a rock and under another. The tree in front of the house had likely died years ago but was too stubborn to fall. Two vultures perched in its skeletal branches, harbingers of misfortune on a house that was already as low as it could sink.

“Keep riding,” Lucky said quietly. “We’ll double back on foot.”

They hitched the horses to a fallen tree just down the road, and Lucky began to walk toward the house. The wind blew furiously down the street at her, pushing her back a little in a hot gale that reminded her of a screaming man. When she got to the house, she stopped at the front gate and looked down the path at the tiny house.

“Anyone home?” she yelled, hoping the wind would carry her voice to the window. “Hello?”

A tattered flannel curtain wavered, though whether it was the breeze or someone inside, Lucky couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Mary Higgs,” she called. “Is she here?”

Nothing. She wondered if Mary Higgs had even heard her from this distance. If she hadn’t, it wouldn’t hurt to come closer. If she had, Lucky would just have to make a run for it.

The gate in front of her wasn’t locked, but it still felt like trespassing as she pushed it open. It pulled on its hinges, making the whole fence lean. Lucky wondered if anyone even used this gate, or if Wade and Trent just rode their horses over the low fence when they came home. As she stepped foot into the yard, she remembered the old house just outside of town where the entire family had died of scarlet fever when she was less than a year old. No one had moved into the house since then, so it became the stuff of legends: A playground of dares and self-made terrors for the children in town who would goad each other into taking one, two, three steps into the front yard to see how far you could get before the ghosts took you or your own nerves sent you sprinting back out to the safety of the street.

Here, Lucky took one, two, three steps into the Higgs’ front yard to see how far she could get before Mary Higgs shot her. No such gunfire came; pretty soon she was at the steps of the front porch, staring at a door that had recently been painted, though whether it was by Wade or Trent on a recent visit or Mary Higgs herself, she couldn’t tell.

The porch looked precarious at best, with wooden planks cracked or missing. Lucky decided to call from the bottom of it.

“Mrs. Higgs?” she yelled, but before she could get the next few words out, the door creaked open.

Trent, Wade and Job’s mother was a tall, lanky woman: It was no wonder where her eldest son got his height. Her long red hair was mixed with so much white that it appeared pink in the daylight, left to fly free around her shoulders. She wore a black dress that had probably been too short for her the entire time she owned it: It’s hem skimmed her ankles, letting crimson wool socks peak out above her sued workboots. Around her shoulders was a dark blue shawl, and on her finger — the one finger Lucky was focused on, as it was wrapped around the trigger of a shotgun — was the emerald ring that she had taken from Tilley that first day she robbed a train.

“You don’t look like so much,” Mary Higgs said, glaring at her over the gun. “Pull up your skirt.”

“Ma’am, I–”

Mary jiggled the gun at her as a means of encouragement. Lucky lifted the dress up to show her trouser-clad legs underneath.

“Higher,” Mary said. “I want to see your holster.”

Lucky lifted the skirt all the way to her waist.

“Well aren’t you the fancy lady,” Mary said, lowering the gun. “Wearing a goddamn corset all the way out here just to see me. If I knew you were coming, I would have baked a cake. Better get in here before the wind blows you away. I just put some coffee on.”

Excerpt: “What kind of afterlife is this?”

Sylvia’s knees buckled under her as the ground met the soles of her boots. Her palms scraped across the cobblestones as she caught herself from fully face-planting, and once she had regained her balance, she saw Raff hadn’t been so lucky. He lay supine about five feet from her, one arm and both legs bent askew in a nasty, broken way.

Before she could crouch down to check on him, he straightened out and lifted himself on all fours. His face was dirty, but unharmed.

“What the fuck just happened?” He asked. “There was a car coming, and you appeared out of nowhere, and then the world disappeared.”

Sy chewed the inside of her cheek, trying to find the way to begin explaining, before Raff’s attention was turned elsewhere. She followed his gaze upward and realized he was looking at the same castle that had been embroidered into the tapestry that hung above her crib as an infant and bed as a child.

She had never seen it in person, but it lived up to the legend that passed through the witches in her family. The sky surrounding it was an ethereal lavender that reminded her of summer dawns captured through an extreme Instagram filter. The castle itself was sepia-colored stone, with tall glass windows and sharp spires lining the parapets.

“Erris,” she breathed in reverence. In doing so, she snapped Raff from his speechlessness.

“What the hell is this place?” He asked, turning to her. “Where have you kidnapped me to this time?”

His last two words and the emphasis he placed on them particularly stung, even if they weren’t accurate. She hadn’t kidnapped him at all, not this time nor the time before. That was all the Tersus’ doing.

“Well,” she said, canine teeth catching on to a particularly swollen piece of inner cheek. “Remember how you almost died last spring?”

“How could I forget?”

“Well, before you almost died, I gave you some medicine—”

“Spare me the euphemisms. Just call it a ‘potion.'”

“Right. A potion. So, it was a potion that would save you from dying—”

“So you did cure me with magic,” he scoffed, throwing his hands in the air. “You promised me you didn’t. You swore that I pulled through from — what did you call it? — ‘my own human strength.'”

“You did!” Sylvia exclaimed. “You did, Raff. The potion I gave you was just a precaution in case you didn’t survive. It was a potion that would save you from dying like a human. Instead you’d die like a witch, and you’d end up here.”

She waved around, and felt the sheer absurdity of it all as her eyes caught on to the dichotomy of the place. While the castle was exactly as she had expected, nothing else in this realm was as it had been described. The bridges that were once “shrouded with dark, lush forests” instead rose from clumps of ashy, empty dead trees and stretched across dried-up riverbeds. A carrion crow landed up the road and picked at a large carcass that Sylvia hadn’t even noticed. As it pulled meat from the bones, the body shifted, and the light glinted off something narrow and metal sticking out of it.

“What, in hell?” Raff asked, his voice echoing in the quiet. “What kind of paradise is this?”

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Sylvia said. “It’s supposed to be lush and green. A sort of Witch Paradise.” She started walking toward the crow and its meal.

“Don’t walk away,” Raff said, giving in when she didn’t slow down and hustling to catch up. “This is really a great heaven, by the way. Great place to spend the afterlife. You witches really are fu—”

“Raff, something’s wrong,” she said.

“No shit,” he said. “If I’m in the place where you decided I should go if I died, then that means I’ve died. So since you’re here, too, that means you can figure out a way to magic us back or something so you can save me again.”

Sylvia reached the crow. Try as she might, she couldn’t shoo it away — instead, it glared at her with its red eyes before dipping its beak back down to take another bite. Now that she was closer, she could see that the body on the road was indeed human. The light had reflected off of a long narrow sword that had been plunged into its chest.

“I’d say pick the pockets for identification, but it doesn’t look like this guy has pockets left,” Raff said, crouching down next to Sylvia. His cold demeanor had started to thaw.

“Raff, it’s not supposed to be like this,” she said again, turning to him. “My grandmother is supposed to be here. My great-uncle, too. But it’s all destroyed. The forests, the streams — something terrible happened here.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much help figuring out what,” Raff said gently. “But why don’t you send me back before you start searching?”

“Raff, I can’t send you back,” Sylvia said. “The only way you got here is because you died. The same goes for me — my Earth body is pancaked out on Lake Shore Drive just like yours is right now. We have to stay here and figure out what happened before whatever got this guy,” she motioned to the body before her, “gets us, too.”

“How do you die in an afterlife?” Raff said.

Almost on queue, the body before them began to stir. Its arms unfolded themselves from around its head, and its neck straightened so that the face looked straight up at them. One eye socket was empty; the other was so coated in blood that the blue of its iris almost glowed against the deep black stain. The mouth opened, and from it came a gasp that should have been a scream, but for the slashed vocal chords dangling from its opened throat.

“You don’t,” Sylvia said, putting a hand on the body’s shoulder in sympathy. “And sometimes that’s worse.”

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.