Excerpt from “Stet:” Agatha comes home

I walk back across the street to my apartment after two more beers. The summer days have started stretching into evening, so when I roll into bed I sink my face into the pillow against the orange sunlight streaking the wall through the slatted blinds.

A phone rings in the distance, getting louder. When I lift my face off the pillowcase in desperate need of a wash, I see that the orange has brightened into synthetic white as city lights replace the setting sun. Somehow I find my phone woven into my cocoon of sheets.

“This is Mary from Moundsville Mental Hospital,” says a voice on the other end, too happy with itself for conveniently holding a name alliterative with her place of employment. “We’ve got a Miss Agatha Lydecker here, and she needs to be taken home. You’re on her list of emergency contacts, so we thought you might be available to pick her up?”

We arrive back at my apartment in what seemed like no time at all, and I tuck her onto the couch in the living room. She falls asleep quickly, and I return to my room, this time flopping onto my back. I close my eyes and try to let my breathing drop into the same rhythm as the humming icemaker in the kitchen.

But I can’t fall into sync. I’m too busy listening to the silence coming from the living room, which screams that something’s not right. I get up and pad down the hall to the couch. Agatha hasn’t moved. I go back to my bed, assuring myself that she’ll be fine, at least until she wakes up in a stranger’s apartment in hospital scrubs, the only clothes they had for her. I don’t know why they couldn’t dress her in what she wore when she was admitted.

I’m finally an exhale away from icemaker meditation when I hear a creak in the living room. With a sigh I lift myself out of bed, but I don’t make it down the hall. Instead, I’m frozen at my bedroom door, looking down the ten feet of empty space at where the living room is, only to find that I’m not looking at empty space — I’m watching Agatha pirouetting on the other side.

Before I can call out to her, she stops spinning, facing the kitchen like a statue. She slowly pivots to face me, and a shaft of midnight city light slices across her face to illuminate her eyes, narrowed in concentration. Or is it anger? The pupils reflect the light like a cat’s, and there’s no other word for what I’m seeing:

Ghostly.

I back away, unsettled but refusing fear. Agatha continues to watch me, the light framing her scowling eyes before she starts to pirouette again, turning a few times, then stepping forward into another turn, slowly coming down the hall toward me. I hear panicked breathing and think it’s her. It’s me.

I inch backward into the bedroom, about to close the door, but decide to have one more peek. She’s just standing there, scrubs hanging off her slight frame like rags off a scarecrow’s frame.

I close the door anyway and get onto the bed, contemplating my options. My phone is on the kitchen table, where I left it after putting Agatha to bed. Below the window is a 30-foot drop. My walk-in closet is better defined as a gaze-in closet because it’s so full of boxes, clips and dirty laundry. As I sit among the sheets reeking from sweat spent on nightmares about what happened to Agatha, I realize that now that I’ve learned what happened to her, I’m terrified of her.

Then I hear her call my name. The voice is so faint that it must be coming from the couch. I hear it again. Part of me wants to answer — is sure that I must have just been seeing things, letting her recounts of ghost-hunting get to me, or letting guilt invade — but I can’t move. I try, but I can’t. This isn’t the sleep paralysis I usually have the night before going to press. This is being literally too scared to move.

She calls my name again. I can’t budge. Maybe she’ll roll over and go back to sleep, wiped out from her ballet interlude in the hallway. Maybe she’ll be confused and leave the apartment altogether. Either would be a win at this point, I think, but the Good Person inside slaps my conscience on the wrist. I’d answer her, but I can’t form words. My mouth is locked shut.

There’s my name again. It’s louder, but still a whisper. It’s right in my ear, and I feel breath on my face and eyelashes against my temple as I hear it. I gain the ability to blink, and I take the opportunity to crush my eyes shut against the sound, the feeling, the smell of sweat-rotted sheets steeped in insomnia. The knowledge that somehow, Agatha is right next to me, and I won’t be able to fight her off or even talk her down because I don’t know how I got this way. She got this way, I mean.

My fault, I whisper again in my head.

“Yes, it is,” I hear Agatha’s voice say, clear as day. My eyes explode open, and I see her illuminated by the light intruding through the windows, her face maniacal as she laughs at me, frozen on my bed. Dense smoke curls up the walls, creeping out from under her feet as it shrouds both of us but doesn’t stifle the sound of her laugh, which turns into angry screams, then just screams.

It’s me screaming. I’m screaming as I wake up in my apartment. The city lights illuminate stripes of the past tenant’s wallpaper dotted with wallflowers that refuse to dance to the icemaker’s hum. I’m drenched in sweat.

Telling myself it was a dream, I step into the hall. No pirouetting reporter at the end. I creep forward. No Agatha on the couch, either. My keys are still on the hook next to the door, and I take my phone from the kitchen table. Satisfied, I return to bed, trying to convince myself that I must have left the phone there when I walked in from the bar, even though I haven’t slept without it next to me in five years.

Why Wade Higgs decided to rob trains with his two brothers, his cousin and a man named Squirrel

When Wade Higgs was twelve years, four months and three days old, he made two discoveries that would change the course of his life for the coming two decades.

The first was that his family was poor. His new clothes, though clean and whole, were consistently handed down from his older brother, Trent, and his old clothes went to his younger brother, Job. Dinner, while hearty and tasty, was often a simple vegetable slop, as pork was pricey and deer was dear. Every season came with fewer cattle on the ranch, and every winter came with fewer logs for the fire. And when all of this came to his attention, he made the second discovery:

Whiskey tasted good and made him feel better.

Clark Roberson from two ranches over had come by on a new horse, newly sired by his father’s workhorse and another neighbor’s mare. He was 14 and mean as a horsefly, never leaving behind an opportunity to gloat in the face of those who worshipped the ground he walked on. Until this day, Wade was one of them: Convinced that Clark was the epitome of young manhood.

“Like it?” Clark asked as Wade’s eyes widened big enough to take in the horse. “Pa says he’s mine. Bet you’ve never seen one like this, Higgs.”

By this time Trent had come out of the house. Trent was the oldest and biggest, and yet somehow the good Lord hadn’t found the time or space to fill him with wisdom. As tall as he was, at nearly 6-foot-6, he was dreadfully short on temper, except when it came to animals. No one had seen such a skilled horse and cattle wrangler. Terms like “prodigy” didn’t get used often in Polk Canyon, but it was a common synonym for Trent Higgs and his ability to tame any mustang or drive any herd when he was just ten years old. Now cresting 16 years old, he dreamed of having the money to start his own ranch, but spent his days scrutinizing the ranchers and farmhands in the region who showed little respect, let alone skill, in their trade.

So naturally, Trent wasn’t impressed by the way Clark kept standing in his stirrups.

“Horse won’t like that,” he grumbled, glaring up at him.

“Horse doesn’t know what it likes,” Clark said. “Because I haven’t taught him yet. He’ll get used to it. That’s the nice thing about being able to afford a new horse — he can be anything I want him to be, not some ratty old hand-me-down.”

Trent must have decided arguing with someone two years younger and likely smarter wasn’t worth his time, because he turned back toward the barn. But Clark wasn’t done yet.

“All those mangy beasts you keep on this ranch, I’m surprised you haven’t all got fleas,” he shouted. “Especially considering you’re so poor you all wear the same clothes. Tell me, Wade, you wearing your brother’s old underwear?”

Wade’s cheeks grew hot. Until now, it never occurred to him that families didn’t normally pass everything among one another. He couldn’t remember the last new shirt or pair of trousers that had come into the house, and wondered if, indeed, any had since Trent had grown to his full size.

Sensing his work was done, Clark stood in the stirrups and kicked his horse in the sides, making it rear and charge away. Wade coughed in the dust they kicked up.

“Trent?” Wade asked, voice cracking. It was that time of his adolescence. “Are we poor?”

“Yeah,” Trent shrugged. “I guess.”

Wade didn’t know why it bothered him so much now. Nothing had changed about the way they lived since that morning when he woke up under a quilt that his mother had sewn from scraps of flour sacks and old shirts. The only difference was that now someone had given it a name, “poor,” and the shame of it all came crashing down on him.

Job came limping out of the house. He was nine, and the Biblical origins of his name seemed to determine his luck. Just six months before, he had tried to climb the large tree out back and fallen, breaking one of his legs. It hadn’t healed properly — it was now shorter than the other one — and Job was still getting used to walking around on uneven legs.

“Ma says Mr. Gilligan is coming for dinner,” he said. “She says we have to wash up.”

Mr. Gilligan was from the bank in town — a friend of the family and a quiet investor in the Higgs Ranch, even when it had its rough years. Whenever he came for dinner, there was sure to be a ham at the table. The promise of sweet, salty meat made Wade’s mouth water, even as his stomach churned at the thought that the only reason his family would be eating something so valuable was because someone else had given it to them.

That night, Mr. Gilligan did arrive with a ham, as well as a bottle of whiskey. Sitting around the table, he told funny stories from the town in Polk County, joked with the boys, and played checkers with Job until Mrs. Higgs announced that supper was ready. The bottle of whiskey stayed in the kitchen, incentivizing the diners to finish their meal quicker than usual. When the plates were cleared, Mrs. Higgs rose to take them into the kitchen and retrieve two glasses, one for her husband and one for her guest.

“Mary, get yourself a glass,” Mr. Gilligan admonished when she returned. “I want both of you to be in on this toast.” She did, and when she came back Mr. Kelly lifted his drink and proclaimed “To old friends, whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Trent had gone out back to put the horses away before the wolves came out. Job was playing checkers against himself — something he had become quite accustomed to during his recovery — in the corner. And Wade’s ear was pressed to the door. Something about the uncharacteristic gift Mr. Gilligan had brought to their home was weighing on him.

“Mary, that was one excellent meal,” he continued. “It breaks my heart that this could be my last one for a while.”

“What do you mean, Sam?”

“I mean to say that the bank is moving me on,” he confessed. “They’re concerned with the amount of train robbing going on in these parts, so they’re shutting down the Polk Canyon office and moving me out to Kodak City to open a new branch that’ll serve both areas. That area’s got a couple of marshals that’ve been keeping an eye on things. Only one robbery in the last two years, actually.”

Wade new his father was too proud to ask what would happen to the family with out Sam Gilligan’s monthly dinners, but not tonight.

“That’s the end of the money, isn’t it?” John Higgs said.

“I’m afraid that with the new branch, the bank’s going to be keeping a closer eye on my expenses.” Sam shrugged. “I know I wasn’t giving you much, but it was still more than I care to try to slip under their noses. I’m not saying this is the absolute end — just an intermission.”

“Winter’s almost here,” Wade’s mother said wearily. “What are we supposed to do for food?”

“I’ll send some goods down,” Mr. Gilligan said, his voice fading away behind the pumping of blood inside Wade’s ears. No money from the bank meant no food. No food meant they’d starve. If there was ever a time to try whiskey, now was it, he reasoned, and he took a full swig from the bottle.

It burned so bad his eyes watered, but he liked it. He liked the distraction the pain gave him from the even more searing reality that his family might not survive a winter without crawling to people like Clark Roberson’s family for help. Once it subsided, he took another swig. Then another.

By the time Mary Higgs went back into the house, her son had finished half the bottle and was sitting under the worktable, hiccuping. She eyed the remaining whiskey, understood immediately what had happened, and led him across the room to his bed tucked under the stairs to the upstairs loft. Wade’s mouth was too numb to tell her he was sorry.

The next morning, he picked up the newspaper that Mr. Gilligan had used to wrap the ham. Despite the haze of meat grease and a hangover, Wade made out the words of an article about a train that had been robbed by a small group of bandits just outside Fort Jerusalem and remembered what their so-called family friend had said about Kodak City being relatively safe from such nefarious activities.

And that’s when he decided he would change that.

He saw Mr. Gilligan one more time, twenty years later. He’d lost count of how many trains he’d robbed by then, but this was the first one he’d stopped on its way to Kodak City in which a bank employee was charged with sitting with the safe in the front. In this case, it was the man who had abandoned the Higgs family before the longest winter in history — who had sent a single box of goods before disappearing from their lives entirely. He hadn’t even shown up to bury his old friends John and Mary Higgs when they died just before spring broke that year.

Struggling under the weight of age and guilt, Mr. Gilligan’s slow hands and old gun were no match for Cousin Elton and The Squirrel, who subdued him easily. When Wade opened the safe, he emptied it into his bag and made sure to take the bottle of whiskey from Mr. Gilligan’s own satchel bag.

“Here’s to friends,” he said, uncorking it with his teeth and spitting the stopper into Mr. Gilligan’s lap. “Whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Wade Higgs’ theme is “Old Number Seven” by The Devil Makes Three:

Excerpt from “Nobody’s Hero:” Meet Constance Lin, reporter

There are many kinds of journalists, but none more diametrically opposite than the Conference Room Reporter and the War Zone Reporter. Their stories are just as critical to a functioning democratic society, but their tolerances are different.

A War Zone Reporter doesn’t flinch at the sound of an F-15 screaming overhead or run for cover when a bomb detonates three blocks over, but will shriek with boredom sitting across a table from a source and their three lawyers. A Conference Room Reporter can weather the monotonous monsoon of picked-and-polished information that talking heads regurgitate from a talking points briefing sheet, but has no stomach for personal peril other than a potential cease and desist from an annoyed source.

That’s why the Federal Vigilante Agency’s press room — located on the second floor and shrouded from the city with automated, retractable window screens when the occasion called for discretion — had broken into chaos. All of these local news crews and writers whose worst fears were a dying phone battery during an exclusive interview were facing certain death at the hands of a madman who had just made his presence known by splashing his logo in dripping neon green light along the wall behind the podium.

At least, that was Constance Lin’s take on things from where she stood in the back of the room. Being six feet tall helped her see over the melee, but the extra four inches added by her high heels meant a less stable base as the room swarmed with panicked people.

The dark momentarily dissipated with an abrupt bolt of light that seared itself into everyone’s eyes as it vanished. Up on the wall, down on the floor, pasted to the back of heads, no matter where Constance looked, there it was: the sun-bright outline of a flaming, falling meteor that made up infamous villain Flashbang’s calling card.

Suddenly the heat of embarrassment at mentioning the threatening memo left her cheeks. Instead, her brain buzzed with the reminder that she needed to survive. She had come too far — all those years embedded with troops in Syria, mountain climbers on Everest, villagers in Sudan — to be brought down by some asshole with a fancy light show.

Music of the Write: “Appetite” by Casey Edwards and Ali Edwards

Spotify threw this one into “My Weekly Discovery” a couple weeks ago as I worked on Camp NaNoWriMo planning, and it seems like the music streaming service might know my work-in-progress better than I do.

Now that I’m committing to my house exorcist mystery, “Appetite” is a fitting theme for how Agatha succumbs to obsession while shadowing Handel and Maeve’s work driving demons from suburban homes. It sounds like something Billie Eilish would record after she graduated from college, joined a coven and opened a unisex haberdashery with a backroom full of spell and potion ingredients (actually — that’s not a half-bad story idea).

Excerpt: The housewarming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.

Excerpt: In need of a witch

Some people, when they leave you, take a piece of your heart to fill a hole in their own. Others take a piece, plop it into their pocket and forget it’s there when they store their coat in the closet for the summer.

Raff Manning was the kind with the rotting chunk of my heart in his parka pocket, so when I saw his name light up my phone for the first time in six months, I assumed he had been cleaning out his closet and wanted to know if I’d like it back.

Actually, the text message preview showed a single line: “Hi: been a long time. Need your…”

Need my what? The part of me that hadn’t gotten laid in half a year liked to imagine the next word was “pussy,” but even when we were buck-naked in my bed he had never been that forward. And from the fact I was, as of that morning, “terminated “with cause” from the job I had worked for more than four years, I highly doubted even Raff needed my expertise or skills — especially when my resume centered around staff analysis and succession planning.

I let the message languish on my phone while I unpacked the sad cardboard box I’d trekked home from my ex-office. Half of it was useless junk I should have left behind — the fake plant I dusted rather than watered, a Funko Pop of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, and since when did I own a hacky sack? — but it did the trick of covering up the ingredients I’d need to exact my revenge whenever I’d had enough wine to feel pissed enough to override the guilt.

So my boss believed that asshole Billingsly in the accounting department that I had forged my paid time off count, huh? I had a crumpled napkin filled with danish crumbs and a single hair that I had gotten off of my boss’ desk while he was in a meeting and a sliver of fingernail I had watched Billingsly bite off and spit out as he talked to me. There were two voided reports with both their signatures, a sample of the fern my boss walked into almost every day when he entered his office, and a scrap of loose fabric that dangled off the bottom of Billingsly’s chair. When mixed with a few of my own ingredients — ballpoint ink, dried and diced highlighter tips, Eucerin hand cream, and a skimming off the top of a cup of creamed coffee left to sit for a week — they’d both have to use all their paid time off to recover from the irritable bowel syndrome that had suddenly befallen them. Always treat your co-workers with respect, I smirked to myself: You could never tell which ones were witches.

But that project would have to wait.

The message floated there ominously, that “your…” looming like the foggy rim of a cliff: I knew a drop laid just beyond the edge, but I couldn’t be sure just how far down I’d fall.

I opened it.

“Hi: been a long time. Need your help on a job. $$. Meet at Ravish around 7?”

So it was a job, then. The same hook in my pelvis that had regrettably pulled at the thought of Raff wanting me back was now in my stomach. I never liked his line of work — found it dirty, despicable — but my last paycheck was currently in my handbag, and my half of the rent was due in a week. Magic could only get you so far, and a little cash wouldn’t hurt.

I changed out of my work slacks and button-down into my best-fitting jeans and a tank top in Raff’s favorite shade of green. As I checked to make sure I had locked the front door, I dashed off a text to Philippa letting her know that I wouldn’t be home until late. Her job at the lab kept her past 7 most nights anyway, but I didn’t need this to be the night she decided to bring home a takeout feast for us.

In her role as best-friend-and-avenger, Philippa had sworn that the minute she saw Raff again she would inject him with whatever pharmaceutical misfire she had cooked up at work. Forever my warrior, she was indefatigable in her hatred for him, despite how long they had gotten along in the two years I dated him. Philippa implored me to delete and block his number, and maybe she was right, but deep down I also knew that maybe one day I’d need his professional skills. You never knew when you’d need a bounty hunter.

Halfway to our meeting, I got a text from her asking if I was meeting with anyone she knew — she was almost done and wouldn’t mind joining us for a happy hour drink. “Friend from work,” I said. “Long story.”

After all, if this assignment was worth the trek up north, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

Walking into the bar was like stepping out of a time machine. The tables were in the same place; the bartender was the same; the TVs were even playing the same rerun of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — a naked Danny DeVito was lying face-down in a puddle of hand sanitizer. And there sat Raff, in the same black leather jacket as he’d worn the day I met him, in the same spot he always sat in at the bar, and with a can of the same milk stout he always ordered when we came here.

I had avoided Ravish since the breakup. I didn’t want to have to answer the bartender when she asked where he was, as she was accustomed to seeing us at least once a week. I didn’t want to stare at the same wall of drawn-on dollar bills that I’d stare at when his eyes got too intense while we dissected whatever movie we’d just seen across the street. And yet here I was, walking in to act as if six months hadn’t passed.

Just to be safe, I took the stool on the right side of him, rather than on his left like I had all those times before.

“You look—” his eyes fluttered up to my hairline. While debating how much vengeful cleavage to display, I had totally forgotten that in the month following our breakup, I had chopped my hair into a punky little pixie and dyed it a luscious aubergine, then crimson, then green. I had recently experimented with turquoise. “Nice hair.”

“Thanks,” I said, running a hand just over the pompadoured front. “Thought I’d change it up.”

“Well now it’s like old times,” the bartender came over — same butterfly tattoo on her wrist, same nose ring. “Loving the hair! What can I get for you, babe?”

“Whatever Three Floyds is on tap,” I smiled at her.

“And I’ll take another one of these,” Raff said, lifting what turned out to be a near-empty can that he easily crushed in his fist.

“Sure thing,” she said. She had been privy to every thought we had in the early days when we clung so hard to each other’s sentences that we lost all grip on time, and now she was trying to determine if this was a date or detente.

“You shotgun the first one?” I asked, nodding at the crinkled can.

“Got here early.” It was like old times, I thought.

I watched the amber slosh into the pint glass as I waited for Raff to start talking. By the time the foam had started to crest the top of the glass, I had grown impatient.

“So this job?” I prompted him, smiling in thanks as the bartender placed the glass in front of me.

“I need some information from you.”

“Raff,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted the draught to my lips. A brief touch to my lips and I knew the strawberry-tinged hops flavor immediately: Zombie Dust, the first beer I’d had here. Nostalgia really had to bust my ass today, didn’t it? “If this this about Spencer, you can forget it. I don’t know what he’s up to; I don’t know where he is; and even if I did know, I would sure as fuck not tell you.”

“It’s not like that,” Raff said, tapping his nail on top of the fresh stout can in front of him. He once said it was to keep it from foaming over the top when you cracked it open, but now I realized it was likely just a compulsive ritual for him. “It’s nothing to do with your brother.”

Step-brother,” I corrected him. Spencer and I were never close, but on the scale of who was annoying me most right now, he was far from where Raff sat, which granted the amateur fireworks maker and trafficker amnesty in my head.

Raff opened the beer can and took a tentative sip. His eyes flitted to my hair with every blink.

“I really do like it, actually,” he said, as if admitting something to himself more than to me.

“What’s the job, Raff?” I needed to refocus so my face wouldn’t go pink.

“Have a bit more beer before I tell you,” he said.

I knocked my glass back hard, sloshing more than a sip or two down my front as I chugged half of it down. Even though I closed my eyes, I could still see this place on the night of our first date, when we had stayed talking at this bar until they closed. Him in that leather jacket, smelling of paper and pepper, and not only enthusiastically talking about his life, but also enthusiastically listening to me talk about my own.

Half the beer gone and my stomach roiling in discomfort, I put the glass down.

“Now?”

Raff chuckled. “OK, here’s the gig. There’s a guy up in Edgewater who’s been fencing stolen cars, and I’ve been monitoring his place all week so I can bring him in. Except I’m not the first one to try it. I’ve seen pairs of cops show up almost every day, warrant in hand, marching up to the house looking like they mean business. They go inside, and they come out looking like they’ve just had lemonade and cookies out on the back porch with the guy.”

“Maybe they are,” I shrugged. “Cops can be dirty, you know.”

“If he’s got this many cops as pals, how’d they ever get a warrant approved in the first place? Nah, something witchy is going on here.”

I twinged at the word and took another sip of beer to clear the bitter taste in the back of my throat before I spoke.

“So that’s why you need me. To do something ‘witchy’ back.”

“No,” he said, almost too quickly. “I just need you to come to the house with me so we can see what he’s got going on out there. If I know what I’m up against, I might stand a shot at getting him into custody.”

One more tip back, and my beer was nothing but suds sliding down the side of the glass.

“How much?”

“I’ll give you $600 if you come with me right now.”

That would be almost all my rent this month, and while the thought of helping Raff with his greasy bounty hunter assignment made me want to immediately take a shower, I also needed that $600 to afford the running hot water. But I wasn’t about to let my ex know I was that financially distressed, so I ran my finger around the rim of my pint glass as I smiled coyly.

“You must be desperately in need of a witch,” I said, turning my head around to see if I could find the bartender to order another pint. I didn’t want to leave yet. He’d likely walk out with me, and I’d be forced to remember in stereo the first night we left here together and he kissed me on the sidewalk outside, and the last night we left together and he told me it was over on the same patch of pavement.

At the word “witch” his eyes flashed cautiously toward the bartender, who had just reappeared behind the bar to ring in a kitchen order.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “She’s one, too, you know.”

“Serious? How do you know?”

“Witchy-sense,” I said sarcastically, adding a particularly exaggerated jerk-off motion. The truth was I had seen her add a little something to a drink if it was headed toward a particularly awful customer: whether it was to loosen their wallets or slam shut their sphincters, I didn’t know. Maybe both. “You seriously can’t tell? She must be better at hiding it from you dim people.”

“You know, ‘dim’ isn’t exactly an endearment.”

“In your case, no,” I said. “You didn’t figure me out for upwards of two years.”

He took another sip from his beer to avoid responding, but I could see his neck flush with embarrassment.

“I moved in with Philippa, by the way. She had an extra room in that brownstone she inherited from her grandma. We’re very happy and have satisfying casual sex with each other every night, in case you were wondering. I think we might take the next step and adopt a hamster next week.”

This made him crack a smile.

“Are you still living with Benjamin and Theo?”

“Yep, though the band’s long finished. We posted that music video on Youtube and got laughed off the internet.”

It didn’t take any prophesy potions to know that that was going to happen. I had seen the storyboards for their project, and it was laughable even on paper.

“They miss having you around, though,” he said quietly. “Didn’t get off my back for weeks after we broke up.”

“Was it really because of the witch thing?” I asked, figuring that I might as well put it out there now before we decided to try to haul in a car thief together. The beer had loosened me up enough to decide I’d rather regret things I said than things I didn’t say.

“Maybe,” he shrugged. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, Sylvie. I think it was just our time to end.”

He hadn’t called me Sylvie since the height of our romance: Otherwise it had always been “Sy” or the dreaded “Sylvia.” I had no intention of starting over with him — six months had been enough time to brew and drink the right potions to detox him out of my system — but I didn’t mind him hoping this misadventure would bring us back together. Maybe we’d get through this together without going for each other’s throats, after all.

As long as he never put two-and-two together and realized that he stopped loving me shortly after he shaved all his hair off for that damn music video.

Excerpt: The Gladstone Gala

The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson Dior evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once bruised her collarbone. Lilah contended the twice-weekly Pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

They walked the red carpet, which was attended by a cadre of camera-wielding local press, and smiled and waved like they told all their clients to do at these kinds of things. Pru suspected that’s why they loved the Gala so much: It was their turn to be the show. Pru didn’t care as much, but this evening was different. She was going to be the show whether she wanted to be or not, so she might as well lean into it.

When she stepped out of the black town car she had hired, she heard a gasp from Amy Charles, the fashion columnist for Centropolis Weekly.

“Pru, who are you wearing?” she yelled.

“The last person who asked me that,” Pru snapped back.

In truth, she was wearing Foster Updike’s first red carpet fashion, and if the crowd reaction and her own style sense told her anything, he could have a fallback career if engineering for a vigilante was no longer an option. Using the long black train of her gala dress from three years previous, he had created a hostess coat that fanned out behind her and showed off the stunning metallic black leggings underneath. It magnetically snapped together in the front to hide her chest plate, and its sleeves covered the utility arm-guards she knew she’d need.

But when she turned around, everyone got the real show. On the back of the coat’s skirt was the brilliant turquoise Nightfire flame that seemed to glow in the light. In reality, it sort of did — Foster had coated the blue fabric (sourced from another year’s dress) with a flexible phosphorescent finish that created a holographic effect. If anyone was still unclear who she was in the PR world, this would set them straight.

When she got to the entrance of the gala hall, Lilah raised an eyebrow, made a comment about not knowing 1950s fashion was back in vogue, and eventually threw her hands up with an admission that “It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.” Her father said nothing but at least acknowledged her with a nod before escorting her mother toward their other guests.

Dinner at the gala always seemed to take forever, and this year was no exception. It especially didn’t help that the Gladstone Foundation’s event planning team received a barrage of complaints from attendees after last year when it decided the salade nicoise would already be plated and waiting for each guest when they entered the dining room. The logic was sound — Pru had seen how so many of the guests had stumbled in from the cocktail reception in search of bread baskets and more booze — but their donors, many of whom distrusted any kind of produce they couldn’t ensure was organic-grown, weren’t pleased at the prospect of eating anything they suspected of being room temperature (unless it was a draught of scotch).

So this year, each course came out in the hands of white-jacketed waiters, and at what seemed like a glacial pace. Pru kept glancing at her phone to check the time, at one point incurring her mother’s hand pushing it down into her lap.

“The work is here, Pru,” she whispered.

He wasn’t yet, but he would be in three hours, Pru thought.

Darin still hadn’t spoken, though smiling for the cameras and cordially offering one arm to his wife and the other to his daughter hadn’t taken much verbal commitment. Throughout dinner he pushed his salad around his plate, hoping no one — meaning everyone — would notice that for the fourth year in a row, the Gladstone Gala planning team had forgotten his biological intolerance for eggs and psychological intolerance for olives that weren’t soaked in gin or vodka.

Once the little sandcastles of chocolate mouse and raspberry sauce had been delivered to the tables, the dancing started and, more importantly, the open bar resumed operation. Knowing his audience was mostly older donors wealthy enough to pay people to make them feel young, the DJ stuck to playing electro-swing that balanced swelling horns and deep base. A few overly tan, freshly Touch-of-Grayed men entrenched in mid- to late-life crises swung their 20- and 30-something wives around the dance floor, pulling foxtrot and bossanova moves while their partners peppered in body rolls and a bit of grinding here and there. Darin and Lilah Mornay avoided the dancing entirely, preferring Tanqueray to the tango.

Pru, meanwhile, had excused herself to the ladies’ room, where she knew there was a couch she could crash on to reset her mind in the moments before Flashbang was due to arrive. Unfortunately, the pink velvet settee she remembered from galas before was already claimed by an unconscious woman with what looked to be a Cosmopolitan soaking the front of her dress.

“It’s not even nine o’clock,” Pru said in disbelief.

“She saw her ex-husband making out with his new girlfriend in the back hall and decided to drown her sorrows,” said a tall woman reapplying her lipstick in the mirror. “Don’t worry: We already called a medic.”

The Gladstone Gala wasn’t the Gladstone Gala without at least four people needing medical attention. The first time Pru had attended, Portia Abrams and Kaitlyn Ducker’s rivalry hit a fever pitch and resulted in acrylic-nailed slaps being thrown, blood spattering on Yves Saint Laurent gowns, and a clump of hair extensions flying into Lilah Mornay’s martini glass. Portia still had a scar on her wrist that she covered with a thick diamond bracelet purchased with the settlement money.

On cue, two women wearing navy blue t-shirts and carrying medical bags entered the bathroom and immediately started taking the unconscious woman’s vitals. They lifted her up and she groaned, muttering something about a dirty bastard who could never get it up.

“Ma’am, we’re going to get you some help,” one of the medics said. “Can you stand?”

As they started to leave the bathroom, the drunk woman starting to talk louder now about her limp-dick ex-husband and his Playboy Bunny bitch. Pru and the tall woman with fresh lipstick could hear her shouting through the door and both started laughing.

“And to think this thing is a charity event,” Pru muttered, mostly to herself.

“Lifestyles of the rich and generous,” the woman said. “Maybe they think being philanthropists is enough to excuse the rest of their behavior.”

“You should have been here last year,” Pru said, inspecting the couch for potential vomit. It was clean, so she plopped down and swung her feet out, stretching her legs. “Paulie Ferguson literally pushed the DJ off the stage and did a 20-minute set of deep-cut B-52 tracks.”

“Sounds entertaining.”

“Truth be told, it was better than what the DJ was playing,” Pru shrugged. “If they had let him get to ‘Love Shack,’ it might actually have been a fun party.”

“That’s saying something,” the woman said, taking a seat in one of the straight-backed armchairs across from the couch. Something about the woman seemed so familiar to Pru, but she couldn’t place it—then again, upscale fashion, professionally applied makeup, and hairspray-shellacked updos made it hard to recognize pretty much anyone in the room. “You don’t seem the type to be at these kinds of things,” she continued. “Is it the people watching that brings you here?”

“I prefer the term ‘social observation,’ and it’s more a survival tactic than my idea of a fun Saturday night out.”

“What, did your husband drag you here or something?”

“Parents,” Pru said. “They come every year because so many of their clients are here. On top of having their own plus-ones, every year they get asked by at least eight people or companies to come as their guests. It’s a whole political strategy meeting for them to decide who’s going with whom. Now that I’m with the firm, they have a third player to throw in the game.”

“Lucky you,” the woman smirked. “Who are your parents?”

“Darin and Lilah Mornay,” Pru said, unsure of why. She didn’t like disclosing her lineage to strangers in case they were disdainful of the Mornays’ work or, worse, big fans.

“How did I not recognize you?!” the woman half-shrieked, throwing a hand dramatically to her forehead. “I can’t believe this coincidence. I’ve been trying to reach you for three weeks!”

Fuck, Pru thought. Instead, she just smiled in a way that said “Fuck.”

“I won’t talk shop tonight,” the woman said. “But my name is Constance Lin, and I’m with the Centropolis Sentinel. They sent me here to cover the gala, but I usually cover the Crime and Vigilante beat.”

Now Pru knew where she had seen this woman before. She was the one who had brought up Flashbang’s memo at the press conference three weeks ago. She had also been the one to ambush her outside the FVA with questions about Opal’s background.

“I want to talk about Flashbang’s last appearance,” Constance said, her voice quickening. Pru tried to detect the smell of alcohol on her breath — her demeanor was so different from when she was in the press pool. “Any chance we could get out of here and talk about it?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be covering the gala?” Pru said, eyeing the large clock hanging on the opposite wall. There were fewer than five minutes before Flashbang was due to meet her in the sculpture garden. “You probably shouldn’t abandon your assignment.”

“This is more important,” Constance said. “The gala is a couple ‘graphs on rich people and how much money they raised as an excuse to guzzle champagne and punch each other out on the dance floor.”

“Fair enough,” Pru said, unable to argue with the reporter’s assessment after she herself had just confirmed most of it through sardonic nostalgia. “But I can’t leave yet, so let’s plan on talking next week sometime. I’ll give you my card.”

Her fingers reflexively slipped a card out of one of her hostess coat’s pockets and handed it to Constance.

“Call me when you get out of here and leave me a message,” she said. “We’ll set something up for Tuesday or Wednesday, Candace.”

“It’s Constance,” the reporter called after her as Pru bolted from the bathroom and went to blend in with the drinking, dancing, check-signing throng.

Excerpt from “Nobody’s Hero:” “Do you realize?”

Pru pressed the top of her head to the air-conditioner-cooled glass and gazed out and down the window at the ant-sized people 12 stories below. As they boarded and disembarked the 3184 bus, she could identify a woman in the red standard-issue polo for Target employees. A man in nurse scrubs. Two workmates in matching Centropolis Transit Authority jackets.

It must be nice, she thought, to have a job that didn’t follow you home on the bus. The two-for-one mop heads and $10 earrings would stay at the store. The allergist’s patients would go to their own homes to sneeze and cough and hack around the dog they insisted on keeping. The trains and buses would run with someone else behind the wheel. None of them would have their work phone tucked into bed with them like a teddy bear.

The song pumping through Pru’s earbuds changed to “Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips. A breathy countdown started in her ear: “1…2…3…4” before a drum downbeat and acoustic guitars kicked in at full volume.

High school economics had been the bane of Pru’s 17-year-old existence — the sure end to her short life, and the highest hurdle she was sure she’d ever have to conquer — and she had coped with it by lying flat on her back on the carpet and playing this song through bulky noise-canceling headphones so loud that the supply vs. demand charts wallpapering her brain vibrated right off the walls and crashed to the floor.

As Wayne Coyne asked her if she realized that happiness made her cry, she closed her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried, from happiness or otherwise. Maybe it was when Joseph — or was it Jordan? She couldn’t remember any more — Holmes had ditched her at prom for his ex. She was clearly overdue: It was time to stoke up Field of Dreams or Finding Neverland and let five or six years worth of emotions come pouring out of her tear ducts, uncorked like a fine aged wine.

Now Wayne Coyne was reminding her that everyone she knew someday would die, and she caught a laugh in her throat before it could escape. Yes, that much was clear, as indicated from what she had just witnessed: Her boss, her friend-turned-tormentor, dead on the lab floor, surrounded by baby carrots and unresolved, origin-unknown animosity.

And that made it even harder to grasp why tears weren’t coming to her eyes — happy, or sad. Rather than waiting around to be told to recognize mortality and acknowledge that sunsets were just an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation, she ripped the earbuds out of her ears and tossed them to the desk before returning to the article she had just pulled up onto her computer on how to chill a body at the right temperature to throw off a coroner’s report.

Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”