Excerpt: How Ester Met Lucky

In another life, Ester Roth would have been plowing the fields alongside her husband, waiting for the sun to go down and give them a little relief in the hot basin that was The Devil’s Cup. As it was, she was slipping out of the stopped locomotive, her white coat catching the cool breeze like the tail of a ghost.

Penelope was waiting on a horse just below the berm, holding the reins of Ester’s own palomino. Jessamine had already made it and mounted behind Penelope, her arm looped tightly around the woman’s waist. Jessamine had complained bitterly about having to double-up on a single horse until she learned Penelope would be her partner — and Ester suspected it wasn’t just because Penelope was the strongest rider in the group.

Ester insisted on being the last person off any train they robbed. It was her calling card, in a way: The dark-skinned woman in a white coat disappearing like a ghost with an entire first class car’s worth of jewels, cash and bullets. Her pockets jingled a little with the final pieces she had taken — today, three gold teeth punched out of the mouth of a man. The last word they had been used to say was the nastiest word anyone could call Ester, and she intended to take them as her price. All she could hope for was that the blood remaining in the crevices of the molars wouldn’t soak through the pocket lining and white linen of her coat.

“Hot day for robbing,” she muttered to herself as she began a quick descent down the hill, swiftly missing a protruding rock and instead leaping onto the back of her horse.

They rode like hell until the smoke from the train’s engine was thinner than a hair in the distance. When they arrived at the camp at the edge of the forest, she and the others presented their take proudly as Rhiannon brought each of them cups of water that had half-emptied as she hobbled with them from the cool sterilization pot. Her ankle was better, she promised, but Ester wasn’t ready to risk it. She had seen too many people literally jump back on their feet after an injury and end up twice as hurt as before.

“Did we miss anything?” Ester asked, stretching one leg out in front of her as she yanked the boot off the other.

“Willie says she heard something in the brush, but it was probably just a rabbit,” Rhiannon said. “By the time I was listening, I didn’t hear anything.”

“The minute we say ‘it was probably just a rabbit,’ it’s going to be a ranger instead,” Ester said, watching a rock fall from her boot before slipping it back on. “I’ll walk the perimeter after lunch. Don’t want anyone catching Singing Bird on her way.”

Though if Ester was being honest, Singing Bird was the more capable at self-defense than Ester, Rhiannon and Willie combined. She knew the land and had traveled much of it, as her tribe had to constantly move to avoid the eastern settlers who were gobbling up the land 160 acres at a time. Ester shuddered to think of how many times Singing Bird might have had to fight a rancher or cavalryman off.

Once she had emptied her other boot of the pebbles and dirt making her feet itch, she took a last swig of water, grabbed her rifle and knife, and disappeared into the woods surrounding the camp. This time of summer, the leaves were deceptively green: Lush in look, but crunchy underfoot, making it nearly impossible to slip through the underbrush undetected.

Of course, that made it hard for anyone else to be quiet, either, which worked in Ester’s favor. Once she had gone deep enough into the woods, she stopped beneath a thick-trunked tree and focused her ears for anything that wasn’t the rustling leaves or her own breath.

She heard it pretty quickly, a distant thrashing of something that didn’t seem to care how much noise it made. That meant it couldn’t be Singing Bird or any of her family; they slipped in and out of the trees like a whisper. And if it was a tracker being sent after them, it was someone who had little finesse and would likely be easy to subdue.

The rustling continued, but it didn’t get closer. Ester tiptoed around the tree to see if she could spot anything. Soon she was walking deeper into the forest, the sound getting louder.

She found it fairly quickly. A wild boar was making its way down a ravine. Ester crouched behind a bush, aiming her rifle: The meat would keep her merry madwomen fed for days.

Ester pulled the trigger. The sound spooked the boar, and it lost its footing, sliding down the remainder of the ravine wall. She swore silently, but then was spooked herself when she heard another gunshot. There was no way an echo would take that long to come back.

And there was no way an echo would also include a scream like the one that followed.

Ester rolled out from behind the bush and crawled closer to the ravine’s edge. Across the way, almost parallel with her across the chasm, was a group of men, one holding a smoking gun. They were so busy looking down into the gorge that they didn’t notice her, and once they were seemingly satisfied with the site at the bottom of it, they turned and disappeared back into the brush.

There didn’t seem to be anything at the bottom of the ravine except the boar, which had picked itself up and was now snorting and beating the ground with one of its hooves. Ester imagined there was a coyote or something down there until she saw movement. It was a person, gender indeterminable but panic palpable.

Checking to be sure the men at the top of the ravine had truly gone, Ester hiked up the tail of her white coat under her armpits and slid on her bottom down the smoothest path along the ravine’s wall. She was close enough now to see it was a woman, dark brown hair falling out of its twig-adorned braid, who was scrambling to get away from the boar. The revolver in her hand shot once, twice, and then clicked — the smallest yet scariest sound to anyone in these parts.

Ester took aim with her rifle and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the boar right in the eye, and the beast’s legs crumpled under it.

The woman fell back in relief, succumbing to the euphoria of survival for a split second before getting her guard up again. Ester took advantage of this brief moment of weakness to walk up and look down at the woman she had just saved. She was white under all the mud streaking her face, and strapped around her chest was a ratty carpetbag, clearly empty apart from some tattered lining.

Feeling confident that the woman was out of bullets, Ester stepped around her to examine the boar. Its bloody eye socket resembled an exploded ripe plum, but the rest of it was in tact and begging to be hoisted on a spit and roasted. Ester’s stomach rumbled in anticipation.

When she heard the woman stir again, she looked over and smiled.

“That’s dinner for the week,” she announced. “Lucky I got here in time, huh?”

Axiom Thorne: I saw Ansel kissing Flora Jayne

With our crew number shrinking and body count growing, it’s come to my attention that the ensemble on the Hydra might want to know what the fuck is going on.

Ansel asked me that once — in those exact words, too.

“What the fuck is going on, Axiom?” He screamed from the center of the locust- and beetle-filled vortex spinning around him. Though at that time, I had to answer honestly: “I don’t know.”

Momma had died by that time.

Wait — Momma’s not dead. She just forgot I exist, that’s all. Sorry: I can’t keep straight which version of the story I’ve told you. There have been so many variations at this point.

So Momma was still alive and well. She was in the kitchen, though whether she was cooking, baking or fixing something is foggy in my memory. Momma did it all because there was no one else who could.

Ansel and I had to be 13 or 14. I think it wasn’t too much time after Stephan the Baker’s Boy disintegrated into bony mulch on the riverbank. Even on the hottest days that summer, every time I saw a beetle scuttle across my window sill or heard a cicada in the tree, I grew chilly under the colorful striped scarf tied around my neck. Just the buzz of a worker bee would force me to look at everyone in the vicinity and think lovely things about them, just in case it could save them from whatever I had conjured up to eat Stephan alive.

Maybe it worked. Or maybe it was paranoia triggered by literal garden-variety insects — in any case, by that fall, I had started to let my guard go.

Until I saw Ansel kissing Flora Jayne.

Yes, Momma was definitely fixing something. The strong smell of wood stain had permeated the house and sent me fleeing outside, mind swimming in a lake that was starting to drain from my eyes. There they were, in the eaves of Flora Jayne’s house next door, holding each other close. Ansel was on tiptoe, as puberty hadn’t yet blessed him with the foot he’d grow when we were 15. Flora Jayne, like most villainous popular girls in these kinds of stories, had woken up one day at 14 with a fully developed woman’s body and a seemingly intuitive knowledge of how to use it to her advantage.

So there I was, still a lanky frame of knobby joints and flat flesh, standing on the back porch, trying to free my lungs of wood stain stink, and instead I had the breath in my lungs crushed out by the blurry sight of two figures standing just 20 feet away.

I wish I could tell you that I wiped the tears out of my eyes to make sure I wasn’t just delusional from the fumes. I wish I could tell you that I found that it wasn’t Ansel, but Charly Moon from down the road, with her newly shorn hair, kissing the woman who would later be her wife. And maybe in a different version of this story, that will be the case, but in today’s memory of it, there was no doubt that it was Ansel and Flora Jayne.

The weight of an invisible hand landed on my shoulder, and the gravel roll of a voice purred in my ear words that I don’t dare repeat now that I know what they’ll create.

Ansel came flying toward me, landing on his knees in the barren yard behind our house. Flora Jayne screamed, then grew silent. The hand that had been on my shoulder seemed to be clapped over her mouth now, and I could see faint colorful stripes fade into the gray masonry of the house behind her. The life didn’t leave her eyes; it just decided to stand still at their windows, watching helplessly.

I turned my attention to Ansel, who just weeks before had been sitting with me on the same dirt patch he lay prone in now. We had built a tent and watched the stars together, inches of bloated space between our skin saying more than if we had been snuggled together like we had been as small children.

The dirt around him grew darker, wetter. Soon it was mud, and the mud was writhing in the same way it had around the Baker’s Boy’s feet. I turned back to Flora Jayne, pleading the spot above her head to make it stop. The crusty deep reply came from right beside me: “It’s entirely in your control.”

I tried to think of every nice memory I had of Ansel to keep the bugs at bay, but my mind was clouded by the realization that while I had no reason to expect it, I wasn’t the only girl in Ansel’s life. That there were others and would always be others, because our long half-elf lives were just beginning. But while I had no right to claim him for myself on that summer’s day, my heart shrieked otherwise as it shrank yet another size smaller inside my chest.

The wind kicked up, lifting the edge of my own scarf so that it tickled my cheek. A cyclone had started rising from the dirt, carrying with it every manner of insect in a flurry of wings, stingers and tiny teeth.

“What the fuck is going on, Axiom?” Ansel yelled.

“I don’t know,” I cried, wishing it would stop. I turned to Flora Jayne and her invisible captor. “Make it stop,” I begged.

“You’ll have to get used to not being the only one,” the invisible man said.

Another look back at Ansel. I am not special, I thought. But if I’m not special, how can I do this?

“Because you have me,” the rock-tumbler voice said.

“Please,” I begged, squeezing my eyes shut, as if it would make me deaf to Ansel’s screams. “Please make it stop. I’m not special. I need your help.”

“Good girl,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes said, his unseen hand giving my shoulder a squeeze that turned off the noise around me.

When I opened my eyes, I was on the porch still, and when I looked over to see if the Man in the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes was still there, instead I saw Ansel and Flora Jayne kissing, just as I had before. A lone cricket sang in the hedge. The patch of dirt in the yard was cracked and dry, much like my heart, which was now considerably smaller and harder than it had been before I stepped outside that day.

Take it or leave it, of course. I’ve been lying to you fairly steadily since we started this voyage. Why would I stop now?

Follow Axiom Thorne through her character’s Spotify playlist.

Vignette: Spilled champagne amidst high society

The foaming bubbles of spilled champagne clung to her cheap jersey dress like a neon sign screaming “Look at us! A bottle of us costs more than this entire fake bitch’s outfit!”

She tried to sweep them away, crush them into the fabric, before anyone could see. It only made it worse, turning the turquoise synthetic a dark blue that could be seen from across the room. She crossed her arms over her chest, hoping to hide it, while feeling conscious of how flabby her arms were compared to all the rest in the room.

So this was high society, she thought, taking a ginger sip from the wide-mouthed coupe glass. Soul Cycle instructors and music producers; mothers who hired surrogates to protect their figures and hedge fund managers; falling star comedians looking for serious roles and producers looking for a name to sell a blockbuster. No wonder she hadn’t been to an event like this before Nick came along. She hated everyone here.

“You must be Nick’s—” the voices always trailed off at that part, unsure of what to call her. He was still married, and everyone here knew that, even though they were even more privy to the details of his divorce agreement, still unsigned. She saw the way their eyes all drew like magnets to her ring finger, expecting the first Mrs. Banks’ canary diamond there. She also heard their whispers in the corner, wondering which escort agency had sent her and how much they themselves would be willing to pay for a night with a perfectly average woman.

They ought to be more careful, she thought, looking down at her bare hands and slowly drying dress. They might cost Nick some money tonight.

Found Fiction: Apple Cores

I once ate an apple, and when I got to the core, I took one look inside to see the brown seeds. Instead, the seeds and the walls were covered in fuzzy gray mold. The apple had been dying inside — was dead inside — all along.

In one motion, I spit out the piece I had just put in my mouth, tossed the core away and immediately brushed my teeth. I didn’t touch another apple for more than a month, and when I did, I didn’t eat toward the core. I’d enjoy the juicy flesh, but I didn’t want to take the chance of finding out if it was dying on the inside.

That’s the way we deal with people, isn’t it? We like them until we get to their core, and if they’re gray and fuzzy, we toss them aside and spit out the good part because we’re paranoid that some of that fuzzy badness will rub off on us, and our own mouths will turn to gray and fuzzy. We wash our hands of them, brush our teeth of them, try to forget we ever dealt with them. And what scares us the most is if that juicy, flavorful, shiny person has a sickening inside, then any juicy, flavorful, shiny person has the potential to have that sickening inside. And there’s no way to tell just by looking at them, or by biting into them. You have to spend the time ripping the flesh from them and diving deep, enjoying each sweet taste until you get to the core and find out if there’s brown life or gray death. You have to get to the core.

This was found in notes from July 2017. Even now I’m not sure who I was specifically writing about, or if I was just getting maudlin about a bad apple at lunch that day.

Vignette: The Tinkerer

The bell above the entrance tinkled its chime — two back-and-forths of the tiny bauble, then the clink of the whole ornament against the glass as the door shut. Malfi looked down the row and saw a middle-aged woman in a periwinkle knit sweater set standing at the entrance, clutching a jewelry case that was too big for a bracelet but too small for a necklace.

“Back here,” Malfi called, hardly looking up from the porcelain duck she was fixing. She had to hold the beak to its head for no less than 30 seconds for the glue to dry, and she had just rounded on the fourteenth.

The woman looked down the aisle with trepidation, as if unsure she had arrived in the right place despite the bold gold lettering on the door announcing it as Icarus Antiquities and Repairs. Deciding she was better off by the door, she decided to stay put and shout her wishes across the cluttered shop floor.

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

“That’s me, but I you have to come to the back of the shop,” Malfi said. Twenty-two seconds.

The linoleum tiles overlaying dull wood flooring groaned as the customer began her journey toward the back of the shop, dodging the chandeliers and braziers hanging from the ceiling like a jungle explorer ducking vines. Malfi’s 30 seconds were up long before the woman reached the back desk.

“I have an old pocket watch that needs fixing,” the woman said, not even acknowledging the broken ducktail that Malfi was now trying to match with the back of its glossy cream body. “I was told the owner could help.”

Malfi put the ducktail back onto the purple cushion where the other broken pieces sat.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, deftly sliding a drawer under the counter open so she could retrieve her jeweler’s glass.

The woman clutched the box to her chest as if Malfi had insulted the watch she had not yet seen.

“I was told the owner could help,” she said.

Malfi flashed her a disingenuously wide smile, as she all too familiar with this comment. At 28 years old, with jet black hair, a gold bar threaded through her left eyebrow, and a miniature version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holfernes tattooed on her right forearm, she wasn’t the person most people expected as the proprietor of a high-end antique resale and repair shop. The truth was that even she didn’t believe it some days, but leave it to that reclusive Uncle Pius to bequeath the shop to her — provided she allow keep the staff on in his absence.

“Ma’am, I am the owner of this shop,” she said. “If you’re looking for Pius Brown, he died a year ago. I’m his great-niece, and I would love to help you with your pocket watch. But first you need to take it out of the box.”

You’re the Tinkerer?”

Malfi was surprised to hear someone mention the Tinkerer by name.

“I’m not, but may I ask how you know them? A friend, perhaps?”

“My neighbor said they fixed their mantel clock,” the woman said. “I was hoping they could help me with my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. He found it in the war, see, and I want to give it to my son for his high school graduation gift.”

Malfi nodded and pushed the duck aside. She held out her hand for the box. Before the woman could hand it to her, however, the trap door behind the counter swung up and open with a bang that knocked the newly glued duck’s beak right off its face.

“Damn,” Malfi swore as she caught the porcelain piece just as it was about to hit the ground.

“I heard my name,” said the person now emerging from the cellar under the shop. “Did someone ask for the Tinkerer?”

“This lady’s got a pocket watch that needs repairing,” Malfi said. “Says you fixed her neighbor’s mantel clock.”

The Tinkerer emerged all the way out from their subterranean workshop, and Malfi got to enjoy yet again the expression on the face of any customer who had never yet met the shop’s star repair expert. Six-foot-seven with a feathery shock of white-blond hair, the Tinkerer was almost 80 years old but had failed to shrink in their old age. In fact, they seemed to have failed to age at all. The only sign of dilapidation on him was the inch-thick lenses they wore in his glasses, though Malfi had been told that they had always needed that strong a prescription. The Tinkerer’s daily uniform consisted of black pants faded to gray, a thick canvas-like button down that was yellowing around the cuffs and armpits, and a worn leather apron that caught all manner of soot, glue, metal shavings, threads, cotton fillings, straw, staples and more.

“Let’s have a look,” they said. A warm smile to the woman, and whether she wanted to or not, she was handing the pocket watch box over to them.

The Tinkerer opened the box and drew the watch out by its chain. It swung like the paper lanterns hanging above the counter, catching their light.

“Good casing. A few scratches but nothing that can’t be buffed out.” The Tinkerer opened the watch and examined its face. “Ah, but it has most definitely stopped ticking. We can get that fixed pretty easily — a lot of times these old watches just need a little cleaning and TLC. That means ‘tender loving care,'” they said, peering over their lenses at the woman, who stood transfixed. Her gaze was locked on the Tinkerer’s hair, which had a holographic effect that reminded Malfi of a plastic unicorn’s mane.

When the Tinkerer’s eyes fell back to the watch, they spotted something that even its owner hadn’t noticed. Malfi handed her jeweler’s glass to the Tinkerer, who then replaced their glasses with it.

“There seems to be some odd staining here, right above the 6 numeral,” the Tinkerer said, leaning even closer to it so that the jeweler’s glass in their eye almost collided with the watch face.

Malfi and the customer only saw the brow and cheek squeezing to hold the jeweler’s glass in place as the Tinkerer examined the watch. They didn’t see the horrors that were passing through the lens into the Tinkerer’s mind. Palm trees on fire. An ashen thatched roof blowing in the wind caused by a bomb blast close enough to raise the temperature in the tiny village. A skeletal child running through dirt streets crying for her mother, clutching the gold chain in her hand as the watch dragged across the pavement. A dying man pulling himself along the ground behind the watch, reaching for it in his last living breath, and disappearing as his fingers brushed the metal.

With a gasp, the Tinkerer pulled away and dropped the watch on the table. They ripped the jeweler’s glass from their eye and put the watch back in the box. The customer, unsurprisingly, looked concerned.

“I’ll need at least six weeks,” the Tinkerer said, trying to compose themself as they slipped the box into their oversized apron pocket.

“That’s not acceptable,” the woman said, the concern wearing down to annoyance. “My son’s graduation is in two weeks and I want to give it to him at his party that night.”

“Get him a keg and a laptop,” the Tinkerer said, their whimsical charm gone. “They’re better presence for an 18-year-old. Especially considering that if you give him this watch, he’ll be dead before he can get to college.”

Music of the Write: “Haunted” by Poe

I recently finished reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. If you haven’t read it before but enjoy writing and reading horror, literary analysis, family drama, dysfunctional romance, mythology or surrealism — you might want to pick up a copy. Just be aware: It’s a job.

House of Leaves is ergodic fiction, which means that it’s written in a way other than the traditional way, where you read page one and keep turning pages until you reach the end. Instead, it’s told in the form of letters, manuscripts, asides, footnotes, poems and extensive appendices and exhibits tucked in the back of the book. Prep yourself with three bookmarks so you can track where you are as you jump back and forth between the multiple storylines explored.

Is all that work worth it? At some points I’d say “no.” There’s parts that were hard (for my end-of-the-day brain, anyway) to navigate, and I have to admit I merely skimmed the pages and pages of “Pelican Poems” in the appendix. But the story lines — one about a family whose house has an invisible labyrinth within it that changes as you explore it, one about how that family’s house is the subject of a documentary that doesn’t actually exist but was being analyzed and written up by an old blind man before he died, and one about the tattoo artist/apprentice trying to preserve the old man’s manuscript while running from his own demons — are equally fascinating, even though they occasionally dip into what I call “late-1990s cishet male angst.” Think High Fidelity but 80 times longer and without confusingly charming John Cusack.

Close to finishing the book, a friend introduced me to Poe’s Haunted album, which was entirely based on the book. Turns out that the artist is Danielewski’s sister, which means she had a leg up on creating what I think is not just a fantastic concept album, but also a great guide for understanding the book. Think SparksNotes but song in a way that Fiona Apple and/or the Cranberries would have done it.

Anyway, I haven’t listened to the album while writing (yet — there are some tracks like “Dear Johnny” and “Spanish Doll” that could end up in a project playlist or two), but it got me thinking about how a writer’s work can inspire other artists to create. Film adaptations tend to be the first thing to enter our heads, but an album? Now that’s a labyrinth I could get lost in for a while…

Poe’s full album is available on YouTube, but be a good sport and buy it from iTunes if you can. Support artists!

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.”