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?
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