Axiom Thorne: Seeking help from Hanso Jon

After Stephan crumbled into a pile of cockroaches and beetles, I fled home in need of my mother. My heart beat so hard that I was sure it would bounce the silver viper fang right off the chain around my neck, but instead the metal just grew warm against my skin and I sprinted up the high road toward our small house on the edge of town.

She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. Of all the things to be doing, did she have to be baking? The round loaves rising in the sun reminded me of the baker’s shop window, and how he’d be looking out of it in just a few hours, expecting his son to come rounding down the street. My face drained, white as the flour on her hands.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” She asked. “What happened by the river?”

“Stephan—” I stuttered.

“I thought you were going to stay away from him,” she said, turning back to her baking. “He’s a nasty boy and a bully.”

“But Mamma—”

“What, Axiom?”

“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do anything. He just — he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace, like the ground had just swallowed him up.”

The viper fang was hot against my skin. Mamma’s kneading stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“Stephan called me a freak, and then all of a sudden all these bugs just came up and…and…and ate him.”

She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look angry, either. Instead, she just looked at the colorful scarf I had wrapped around my neck. The one I had gotten two weeks earlier at my thirteenth birthday party from the Man with the Diamond Shoes.

“Right,” she said. “Go rinse off your legs change your dress — you’re muddy all over. We have an errand to run.”

An hour later, the bread was left to rise and we were walking down the high road. I was sure that we were heading back to the scene of Stephan’s demise so my mother could inspect it for herself. Maybe she would use some of those strange elven powers her sister crowed about to find out what exactly had happened and why.

But when we got to the top of the riverbank, Mamma didn’t ask which way we should go. Instead, she firmly took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where Stephan had been torturing fish — past the bridge that acted as a boundary for where I was allowed to play, and into a wide bog dotted with stepping stones.

I put a foot out to step onto the first one, but Mamma yanked me back by my dress. She put her finger to her lips before turning to the bog and yelling: “Hanso Jon! Cretia Lilliput Thorne and her daughter seek your wisdom!”

The stones before us sank, and the bog’s surface crested and rippled as they reassembled into a straight walking path toward an island that had started to rise. My mother stepped out before me, leading the way down the path.

When we arrived at our destination, I turned back to see that the stones had sunk and scattered again. By the time I redirected my attention to my mother, she had cleared a chunk of moss from the center of the island to reveal a latch. Her housework-strong arms had no trouble lifting the trapdoor up, and she nodded her head toward the stairs.

“Watch your step,” she said.

Our half-elf dark vision lit the way as we inched down a flight of stairs and landed in a world all its own. Although I knew we were under the bog, there was a night sky above us, peppered with stars that glimmered. The stairs behind us had disappeared, too, so that we stood in the middle of a field, the breeze gently blowing the smell of imminent rain, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh cut grass clippings into our faces.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Somewhere I never thought I’d have to come again,” Mamma said, and she set down the path toward a house that looked suspiciously like our own.

The door opened before we knocked, though no one stood there. My mother led me inside, and we found ourselves staring at the presumable owner. She was tall — not yet stooped with age, though her hair was white and wispy, and her skin was like a piece of the crinkled sepia paper the butcher used to wrap meat.

“Cretia Lilliput, as I live and wheeze,” the woman said with a strong chuckle that turned into a dry cough. “Never thought I’d see your face in the Underbog again. What is it this time? Has he left you yet?”

I turned to my mother, but her face was stone.

“He left a long time, Hanso Jon. But you already knew that. Just like you know I’m here because of my daughter.” Her hand gripped my shoulder. It was warm in temperature, but not in emotion.

“A little Lilliput!” Hanso squealed. “Well let me look at you properly, my girl!” My mother pushed me forward a little into the light as the old woman scanned me. “Eyes and hair like your mother, but a willowy build like your father, if I recall correctly.”

Without warning, she swooped in on me and pressed her hands to the sides of my head. My vision compressed, then expanded into a memory of my father letting me chase him on my three-year-old stubby legs along the river; a flash of my mother crying next to an empty bed; Ansel smiling, his eyes squinting in the sun; then the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes as he unwrapped the scarf and began to bleed from the gash in his neck.

“Ah,” Hanso said, pulling away. “I see. Tea, anyone?”

I hardly thought it was time for tea, but my mother didn’t object. We sat at the small wooden table in the corner as Hanso brought a tray over from the kitchen. Three china cups filled with pungent peach tea were already steaming on it.

“I know how much you like peach,” she turned to me. “This is my own special concoction.” I looked to my mother for her permission to drink and watched her lift her own cup to her mouth.

“So tell me about your birthday present,” Hanso said, nodding to the scarf. “It seems someone very powerful gave it to you.”

My eyes glanced at my mother, but something strange had happened: She was frozen in place, holding her tea millimeter away from her lips.

“She can’t hear you,” Hanso said with a wave. “And she won’t know we had this little discussion. So who’s the man with the bleeding neck? And why on earth did you think it was a good idea to take a gift he offered? I know you don’t come from smart stock, but even an idiot knows not to trust a man who’s clearly lost his head once or twice.”

It was hard to hold all the information in my head, so I just answered with a shrug while I tried to sort through everything I had learned since stepping foot outside the bog.

“Well, next time you should be a little smarter,” the woman said, sipping her own tea. “So just tell me — how do you know him?”

“He’s a magician in our village,” I said. “He does tricks like change the color of fire and make water taste like vinegar and nectar and stuff.”

“A charlatan act, surely,” Hanso said. “I can do that, too, but you don’t see me scrounging for gold on the streets with it. Watch.” She flicked a finger at my tea, and the smell shifted to tangy pomegranate. “So you know him from the village. What does he know about you?”

That I liked his scarf, I thought. That I didn’t mind talking to strangers, and sometimes I talked too much. That I felt belittled by the baker’s boy, and that I was about to turn 13 and felt like I should be considered far more grown up by now, especially since I towered over the other kids in the village.

I didn’t need to tell her any of this, though. She nodded like she had read my thoughts.

“Now what about the boy I saw smiling in your head?”

“Ansel?” I coughed on the pomegranate tea. “He’s just a boy.” A wonderful boy, I thought, and I’m sure she read that, too.

“Like mother, like daughter,” she sighed. “Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about beautiful boys. They’re only there for a meal, and once they get tired of your flavor, they go to find somewhere else to eat. And not even magic can fix that — just ask your mother.

“Speaking of which,” she said, and Mamma suddenly animated again.

“It appears that scarf around Little Lilliput’s neck has more than couture qualities,” Hanso said. “Do you mind if I examine it?”

I hadn’t removed it from around my neck — not at bed, not during baths — because I feared that my own neck would start to gush blood. But now that we were in the presence of a true sorceress (at least, I thought so), I felt safe to try it. Slowly I pulled it away, feeling the coolness of the house hit my skin.

“Yes, hand it here,” Hanso commanded, and I placed it like a large snake across her arms.

As the material touched her bare hands, the wrinkles in her face deepened; the creases caved in. The light draft inside the house blew her hair away like cotton off a dandelion, and she fell backward into the chair, shrinking until her chin was level with the tabletop. My mother gasped and reached for the scarf. Afraid of what the material could do to her, I pulled her back.

“It might hurt you too!” I yelled, taking it away from the mummy now sitting at the table. As I pulled it away, I saw that it had gotten longer — a thick stripe of metallic bronze knitting had affixed to the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vignette: Modern Day Lovecraft

Less than a week later, they were back at her place, reiterating the same moves as they had at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning, this time perfecting them. A finger tracing down a spine, an arm looped around a waist, a glass of whiskey — this one undribbled — in a single free hand. And then he saw it.

“Is — is that my ticket stub?”

“What?” She didn’t want to move her mouth away from his, but he was already pulling apart, staring at the tiny square piece of paper on the minibar.

He plucked it up with two fingers, setting his drink down and confirming with his own eyes that yes, this was the movie ticket stub he had found in his wallet while fumbling around for a condom. It had been in there for easily a year and a half: The movie had come, gone, arrived on streaming-on-demand, and lost big at the Oscars.

What was confusing was that the rest of the bric-a-brac he had observed — albeit through bourbon-blurred eyes — was gone. The minibar now played alter to the evidence that he had seen Vice at the Riverside 21 AMC on December 29, 2018.

It wasn’t confusing to her at all, however. Such was the life of a modern-day lovecrafter: No longer were menstrual blood, bull testicles, red wine, human hair, cinnamon or anise required. Instead her spells called for some combination of movie tickets, club wristbands, a dollop of aftershave, scotch, and pizza grease heated above an overheating Switch. Love potions were easier when they were intended for women: a drop of nail polish, a smear of nightly moisturizer. A rhinestone that had fallen out of a cheap statement necklace.

“You didn’t need to keep it,” he said, pulling away fully now and examining it. “Why’d you keep it?” His face was that of a woman discovering a man has a closet wallpapered in black-and-white surveillance photos of her.

“Just— don’t even worry,” she said, snatching it from between his two fingers and taking it into the kitchen, where she made a big show of throwing it into the trashcan (but instead aimed for just behind it, where it would remain free of coffee grounds and ramen wrappers).

While she was doing this, she didn’t see the twitch of his smile as he rolled one of her tiny earring backings between his thumb and forefinger, which were clutching it deep inside his pocket.

Axiom Thorne: Sweet, sweet thirteen

So it was my thirteenth birthday. “Unlucky thirteen,” my aunt — screw her soul — would have said. “Such a nasty age,” she’d warned me and my mother, who just squeezed my hand to assure me that it wasn’t true. “The ugly duckling phase and all that,” she’d sneered. Mamma pushed a piece of blond hair out of my face lovingly. As it fell back into place, I saw that her magic had turned it an iridescent purple.

That year my aunt decided to torture me by throwing me a birthday party at our small house with all her large friends. Women in unseasonable silks and men in brocade suits crushed into the front hall, exclaiming loudly, “My, such a quaint little foyer!” and being sure to pronounce it “foy-yay,” as if the pretentious syllables would sweep away the peeling wallpaper and tarnished wall sconces.

Mamma cooked all the food, though my aunt declared it would be her job to provide the cake. A few of the neighborhood kids — forever latchkey lifters and storm door slippers — had wormed into the house to nick pastries and meat pies almost as soon as they came out of the oven. Mamma was quick, though. She let them have their fill as long as they promised to stay for the festivities so we could at least pretend this was a 13-year-old’s party and not some story for her sister’s friends to tell over champagne and steak tartar.

Just when it seemed the party had started to dwindle and the gilded rabble was ready to go home, my aunt burst through the kitchen door with a cake on a platter. It was stood five tiered layers tall with icing the color of pond scum and pale pink sugar orchids winding their way up the sides.

“Every birthday girl gets her cake and eats it, too!” She crowed to her friends’ delighted tittering. She set it in front of me and snapped her fingers dramatically to light the thirteen candles sprouting from the grass-green icing.

I inhaled dramatically, my mind trying to pick a wish. A wheel spun in my head, ticking past all the unlikely wants that had stacked up over the last hour: An empty house, my own room, my aunt gone on a long voyage, a kiss from Ansel next door, more (or just any) friends, fewer chores, bigger breasts, a cake that didn’t look like it might be poisoned…

But before I could exhale, my eye caught something — rather, someone — at the window. A man stood there, his face long and shoulders broad and adorned with a colorful scarf. The sun lit up the back of his charcoal hair like a halo, but his eyes remained shrouded by some mysterious source, as if he had brushed black dust across them. The gray pupils sparkled like jewels in the dirt.

The wheel in my head continued to spin, but every time my thoughts clicked onto one of its segments — my own room, my aunt gone on a long voyage, a kiss from Ansel — the mental inscription on it changed to “the man’s colorful scarf” until every single option was just that: The bright knitting that encircled the stranger’s neck.

I closed my eyes and blew.

Only seven of the thirteen candles extinguished, but Mamma subtly wished the rest to go dark.

“Happy birthday, darling,” she whispered in my ear, collecting up the cake so she could cut it in the kitchen without having to listen to my aunt share the life story of the baker who had made it.

“His daughter…a clubbed foot, if you can pity her,” her voice seemed far away, and soon it was, because I had risen from my chair at the head of the table to walk past the enthralled strangers, through the “foy-yay,” and out the front door to meet the man with my birthday wish.

“Thirteen, eh?” He asked, his voice rattling like pebbles in a tin can — not at all matching how youthful he actually was, now that I was this close to him. “A lot can happen at thirteen.”

One of his dark-powdered eyes winked, and I looked down at the ground bashfully. That’s when I noticed his shoes, encrusted in shiny stones. I can’t imagine they were real diamonds, but they certainly sparkled bright enough to make lies starbursts pop in my vision when I finally looked back up.

“I believe I have a gift for you,” he croaked, and he began to unwind the colorful scarf around his neck.

“Do you know what this is?”

“A scarf?” I asked, trying not to sound mesmerized as the brilliant knitting caught the sun with each pass around his shoulders. It must have been ten feet long, for how many times he had to untwist it. As soon as he had enough to reach, he started draping it around my own neck, winding it there like a weaver shifting thread from one reel to the next — tethering us together during the transfer.

“It’s magic,” he said. “You want to do magic, don’t you, Axiom?”

I nodded, mouth agape as I felt it warm against my skin.

“Each stripe is a different kind of magic I’ve found,” he said. He nodded to the window. “Do you know the man in the purple jacquard duster lustfully eyeing your mother right now?” Sure enough, my aunt’s friend was practically drooling as my mother leaned over him to hand a plate of cake to another partygoer.

I snorted in disgust.

“He passed me on his way inside and dropped some magic on the way,” the man nearly whispered, though I knew he wasn’t telling the whole story. “That’s this new shiny purple bit on the end.”

He waggled the very end of the scarf, which indeed looked more vivid than the other stripes.

“A lot of magic in this scarf,” the man was nearly audible now as he almost finished putting it around my neck.

As he began to lift the last loop away from his neck, I saw it: A fresh puckered scar across his throat. As the knitting peeled away, the wound began to open again, like he was ripping it open.

“Stop!” I yelled, watching the blood start to drip into the yellowed collar of his shirt.

“You don’t want your birthday present?” He asked with a gurgle. A bubble of blood expanded and popped along his neck.

“Not if it’s going to do…that,” I gestured to his throat. “Not if you need it.”

“Sweet, sweet thirteen,” he cooed. “What an age.”

“What an age!” My aunt hooted. I was sitting back at the table. The man in the window was gone, and the guests were still here. The guest in the purple jacquard duster coat was still salivating over my mother as she came over to me with my own slice of cake.

She leaned down close so only I would hear her: “I know you hate chocolate, baby,” she said apologetically. Sure enough, the green icing had been hiding what I wanted least — a dark chocolate cake that looked like compacted mud.

“By the way,” she asked, running her hand along something across my shoulder. “Who gave you such a beautiful scarf?”

Character sketch: Damsey Lemonwax

“And who are you?”

The bounty hunter glowered at her from where she slouched in her chair, legs flopping out wide like an abandoned rag doll.

“Um, Damsey,” the defector said. “Damsey Lemonwax.”

“What kind of name is Damsey?” The bounty hunter’s partner asked gruffly, even though as his eyes flitted back to his friend, Damsey recognized a spark of hope in the purple irises — he wanted to impress this woman.

“Short for Damselfly,” Damsey sputtered. “M’parents were lunatic hippies who never once thought what a name like Damselfly could do to a woman trying to gain respect on a factory line.

Memories of Coop, Wren and Bernard played in her peripheral vision like old movie clips projected on the walls — how they’d used a black marker to fix her name tag on her first day. Some of the more senior workers were mean sonofabitches, Wren had said, and the less she gave them to pick on, the better off Damsey would be.

Truth was, it was never going to be her name that made her notorious in the factory. Cursed with Diligence, Damsey couldn’t help but work five times faster than any other mechanic on the floor, first resetting tooling kits, then screwing on wiring spacers, then wiring entire fuselages. She was one of four other employees who had the unseen talents that having the set of magical gifts that Diligence brought: fast hands, perfect working rhythm, an eye that caught and brain that fixed what few defects she made.

Coop begged her to pull back, to coast. He said she was only going to make things harder on herself if the managers noticed. But Diligence doesn’t defer, and the more Damsey tried to slow down so she could blend in with the other workers, the more it seemed her “Gift” made itself known.

Of course, once management recognized that they had yet another worker with Diligence, they fired the other three electrical mechanics and made her work her line alone — with a mere $3-an-hour bump in pay.

“It’s really unfair,” she sighed into a stale turkey sandwich one day at lunch.

“Tell that to the three people you got fired,” growled Bernard, who had long since stopped being her friend, if he ever was to begin with. “I’m sure they find it unfair, too. Last I heard, Porcupine Cubbins was seen sitting with an upturned hat outside The Union, busking for change with that shitty ukulele of his.”

The word union bounced around Damsey’s head for a bit before it implanted itself in her brain.

“A union isn’t a bad idea,” she said quietly, knowing that the managers liked to walk around the lunchroom specifically to squash any talk of organizing. “If we got everyone to unionize, we could get better pay, better benefits. Make them hire more people. Just because the four of us have Diligence doesn’t mean we should be doing the brunt of the work without better pay. And we could use our strength to get everyone else better comp and conditions, too. You saw Margaret’s foot yesterday after that accident.”

“Gnarly,” Wren agreed, face twisting almost as grotesquely as Margaret’s toes. “But what if no one joins us? We’re not exactly the favorites of the factory. They let go Bob’s best friend and his sister-in-law because of me.”

“That’ll be part of our conditions,” Damsey said. “We’ll make them rehire the people they let go at twice the rate. Otherwise we’ll stop working.”

Damsey never got that far, though. The first informational meeting for their closest friends on the factory floor went without a hitch — 29 people crammed into the back room at McGowan’s to hear what the Diligents had to say. But something happened in between that first meeting and the first day they planned to picket the drive before their shift, and Damsey had gotten pulled into the managers’ office and given a stern warning.

She didn’t heed it. She didn’t heed the next one, either. Turns out that Diligence didn’t just make her fast at her job. It also made her stubbornly committed to her cause.

“So that’s how your hand got broken?” The bounty hunter nodded to her bubblegum pink cast.

“Yeah,” Damsey shrugged. “Something like that.” She tugged the sleeve of her blue jumpsuit as far over the cast as she could. Coop had signed it with his one good hand before they went their separate ways, as far away from the factory as possible.

“Well, kid,” the bounty hunter’s friend shrugged.

“Don’t call me ‘kid,'” Damsey snapped, a reflex from her factory line days.

“Jeez, sorry,” he said. “You in with us or not? We could use someone with your, er, expertise.”

“Depends,” Damsey said, wiggling the one left finger that still worked. “What’s the pay?”

Axiom Thorne: Before there was Ansel

I’m sure by now you’ve inferred that I got my warlockian powers just in time for Ansel to mysteriously disappear from the landscape of my life. You forget: I’m the one painting this picture, and it’s not a landscape, but a self-portrait, which means you get to see exactly what I want you to see the way I want you to see it.

If you squint and look past the last layer of oils I smeared on the canvas, you’ll see another figure. Stephan, the baker’s boy. He was beautiful, and he hated me.

No, that’s wrong. He liked me, but in the way you like having an old scab ready to pop off the skin: Something to pick at.

If it wasn’t tripping me in the mud, it was baking pine needles into a cookie that he slipped into our weekly order with a note that said “For sweet Axiom, Love S.” Mamma said it was because he liked me. I still say it was because he was an asshole.

But the thing about picking at scabs is that you eventually peel off all the crusty, curling skin and hit fresh flesh underneath. And when you do, it bleeds.

We were playing along Bounty’s Creek. “Playing” might be the wrong word, as my version of it was watching Stephan pluck tiny fish out from the shallows and place them on rocks to flip, flop and bake in the hot sun. I was entranced, not repulsed, by the way the light glinted off their scales, almost strobing as they danced away their last breaths. But Stephan couldn’t care less, sweeping the dead bodies back into the water to make room for his next victims. Whenever he’d pivot around, the light would flash off the gilded viper fang that hang around his neck — a trophy from a kill, he’d boast, even though we all knew it was purchased off one of the roving traders that came through town.

I must have stepped on a twig or sneezed, because at some point he noticed me standing in the brush, a voyeur to his routine pescacide.

“Freak,” he spat at me, the one word stinging my ears.

Says the boy killing fish for fun, I now wish I had retorted.

This was about two weeks after I had first encountered the Man in the Scarf and Diamond Shoes and he had tapped me on both cheeks and told me I was magic. The tattoo on my ankle at that point looked like a couple of overgrown freckles.

So how was I to know that Stephan had said the magic word?

Just after the last fish on the rock flipped its last flop, the sun grew dark, as if a cloud had crossed it. Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, I saw instead that a mass of dark speckles had gathered above us.

Stephan let out a loud swear, and I turned to see if he was looking at the sky, too. Instead, his eyes were trained at the ground, where it looked like a landslide had started at my feet, slipping down the bank towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it wasn’t dirt but thousands of gleaming beetles clamoring over each other to get to the water. But then I realized the water wasn’t their target.

The baker’s boy didn’t dance like the dying fish. Instead, he screamed, and the bugs from above funneled into his open mouth while the bugs from below coated his skin. It was funny, really, watching a once-human body become a wriggling mass of black exoskeletons clicking and clacking against each other. Once they had had their fill, they collapsed to the ground and skittered away into nothingness.

I stepped to the edge of the water. There wasn’t even a smudge of flour where Stephan had been standing, as if the beetles had just carried him away. But there was one thing: a sliver of something shiny poking out from the silt, just past where the water lapped against the shore. It was the gold viper fang from around his neck, still attached to the chain.

Plucking it from the muck, I polished it on the hem of my shirt. Without a look back, I trudged up the bank to the high road as I clasped it around my neck.

Music of the Write: Top 5 Songs of 2019

Short entry this week to make room for my longer piece next week. This year I listened to a lot of music, discovered myriad new artists, and wrote a ton while doing both. Check out the top songs I found helped the words fall out this year:

*Note that these are songs I found this year, not necessarily released in 2019.

1. “Blood // Water” by grandson.

Call this the biggest find of the year: Jordan Edward Benjamin, aka “grandson.” “Blood // Water” isn’t my favorite of the political chainsaw rock-tronic he produces, but it resulted in the final action scene of Nobody’s Hero and acts as soundtrack to our Dungeons & Dragons Byssia campaign.

2. “Prophet” by King Princess

To be fair, King Princess’ entire Cheap Queen album was a lifesaver this year. While Lizzo’s music is killer for an explosive breakup, King Princess explores the other kind: those that fizzle out so slowly that no one notices until something extraneous happens that puts things into perspective. “Prophet” made this list because I recently added it to the playlist for a book I’ve struggled to write for seven years now — maybe 2020 will be the year I find inspiration thanks to Mikaela Mullaney Straus.

3. “Succession Main Theme” by Nicholas Britell

Find me one writer who didn’t become obsessed with Britell’s score for HBO’s dynastic drama. Seriously, I fell in love with Succession‘s theme before I saw a single episode of the show. With string blasts akin to Junkie XL’s “The Red Capes Are Coming” from Batman vs. Superman, the show’s theme is the perfect march for a pissed-off protagonist or acid-minded enemy (both of which you’ll find in the Roy family).

4. “All for Us” by Zendaya

Another HBO show find, this one pairing Labrinth with Zendaya for the song that ends Euphoria‘s first season. That show is a treasure trove of tune, including one of the first major uses of Billie Eilish and “Bubblin’,” an Anderson .paak bop that almost made this list. But “All for Us” comes packed with genre-crossing drama: soundboard aesthetics, Zendaya’s silky-to-raw vocal range, and a heart-stopping choir that carries everything on its shoulders.

5. “Honky Cat” by Elton John

“Honky Cat” was always a song that existed, but not one that I put much thought behind until hearing it in a new light in June as part of Rocketman. Everything about it is Elton, who was one of the first voices I recognized on the radio (my favorite song at age 4 was “Crocodile Rock”), and since then has been an enticing enigma of a person who finds a way to surprise me every year when I find another song from his library. Last year’s Elton Discovery was “All the Girls Love Alice,” and 2017 was “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” With seats at his Chicago show in June, who knows what 2020 will bring?

Honorable mentions: “bellyache” by Billie Eilish, “The Chain” by The Highwomen, “Every Time I Hear That Song” by Brandi Carlile, “Pretty and Afraid” by Jidenna, “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey, “I Love Me” by Nikki Lynette, “Standards” by Leslie Odom Jr.

What songs inspired you this year?