Vignette: “Sure, why not?”

They got married because he was afraid of dying alone and because she was the girl who always said “Sure, why not?”

“Chinese takeout tonight?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Vacation to the Adirondacks?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Marry me?”

“Sure, why not?”

Jump off that cliff for me?

Sure, why not?

But deep down, she actually loved him. It was a strange situation, having to keep you love for you husband a secret from him, so as to preserve the very easy-going mystique that had attracted him to you and landed a diamond ring on your finger while vacationing in the Adirondacks. It was the price she had paid all along to be the “Sure, why not?” Girl — the girl everyone wants to be friends with. Lovers with.

Let me finger you in the back of a cab?

Sure, why not?

The wedding had been delightfully laid-back. No one, not even the bride and groom, really took it seriously. She wore a $15 dress from Macys’ Juniors department, and he wore dark jeans and the button-down from his graduation photos. Their first dance was a poor attempt to recreate the twist scene in Pulp Fiction, but of course he ws no John Travolta, and the Chuck Berry record they were using skipped every 17 seconds.

Five months later they were right where they thought they’d be: Arguing, making up over macaroni and cheese, and picking up her birth control pills at the pharmacy every month. Until one day he couldn’t take it anymore, this informal marriage where he’d come up with all the ideas and she apathetically agreed with them. So he came up with a solution and presented it at the dinner table over leftovers.

“Want to have a baby?”

He sat there, waiting for her answer.

Excerpt: Lucinda Ellis meets the Higgs Boys

She opened her carpetbag and dumped it onto the dirt, shaking loose every pocketwatch, coin, ring, necklace, money clip, eyeglass, and paper money she had collected from the passengers on the second car. The Higgs Boys scrambled to stomp their foot on the bills before the wind could carry them away. Wade Higgs crouched down to inspect a delicate ruby ring Lucinda had taken from her talkative seatmate.

“Ma’am, I mean no offense,” he said, mesmerized by the light flashing off the red stone. “But we’re called the Higgs Boys for a reason. We don’t usually, er, have the pleasure of doing business with matrons such as yourself.”

“Not unless you count that old whore you bedded down in Ludslow last week,” one of the boys interjected.

“Mr. Higgs,” Lucinda said, ignoring the chuckles of the men around her. “I don’t believe you’re looking at the situation holistically. You might not have worked with a woman before, but doubt you’ve ever picked this much treasure off a train car before, either. So my question for you is, don’t you think it might be worth including me in future endeavors?”

Wade rubbed his mouth as he stared at the ruby he still clutched between pinched fingers, as if the answer was in the jewel. Lucinda certainly thought it was — of all the things she had read about the Higgs Boys, they never if rarely held up the first-class passengers on the trains they robbed. Looking at the tiny group of five men, she had a sense it was a lack of manpower, rather than will.

“She’s right, Wade,” said the man who had been wearing the paisley kerchief. Job was his name, if Lucinda remembered the Wanted posters well enough. “There wasn’t much in that safe today, and there wasn’t much in the one last week, either. If we can take a walk down those first-class cars, could be more than enough to tide us over.”

“Yeah, so why don’t we just do that ourselves?” Asked the Higgs Boy who had referred to Wade Higgs’ recent conquest. “Why’s she got to do it?”

Lucinda was prepared for this question because she had asked it herself when planning her escape. “Because they don’t expect a lady passenger to be carrying an empty carpetbag with a plan to fill it,” she said. “Or a Colt with the ability to use it, for that matter.”

She removed the gun from the lining of the bag where she kept it, spinning it around a finger as she drew it, just like her father had taught her.

In a reflex, the four standing Higgs Boys drew their own revolvers, poised to shoot. Lucinda’s whole body clenched in anticipation, but her mind didn’t lose focus. She spun her Dragoon back to her side, placing it in the carpetbag and raising her arms up in surrender.

“I said ability, not intention,” she said. The Higgs boys still refused to lower their weapons. Lucinda tried to cover up her fearful trembling by shrugging and returning her gaze to Wade, who was now counting a stash of bills secured in a brass money clip.

“The way I see it, Wade Higgs, you’ve got two enemies: Time and men,” she continued. “If you have me ride that train every week as a passenger, I can case the car — determine who’s got the best goods while we’re on our way out of town and know exactly who to stick the gun at once you and the Boys board. I can make quick work of it while you crack the safe, and we can both disembark together to split the goods.”

“You may have a point,” Wade said, finishing the count and tossing the clip back in the dirt with the rest of the loot. “Must be the wisdom of your years.” The Boys laughed. Lucinda joined in this time.

“Speaking of which,” he continued. “If you forgive me saying so, aren’t you a little old to start a career in train robbing?”

Lucinda smirked and lowered her arms so she could unpin her hat. Through the veil she could see the four guns simultaneously lift higher, more threateningly, as their wielders tried to determine what she was going to do next.

Both hatpin and hairpin came out easily. Lucinda shook her head, a cloud of talcum powder catching on the wind as her dark locks freed themselves from their tight twists. Once her hair was loose, she chanced a glance at the four gunmen. Job’s mouth was agape, unlike his counterparts, who had all tried different methods of concealing their surprise to varying degrees of success. But Wade Higgs wasn’t coy.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, chuckling. “You’re a real pretty lady, you know.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lucinda said, cheeks warming. By her parents, yes, but never a man with the kind of smile and reputation bared by one Wade Higgs.

“What a waste of a pretty face,” Wade said. “And there’s no dress shops or sundry shops out in the woods where we camp. No real soap, either, come to think of it.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

Wade Higgs turned to his boys now.

“Well, gents? Oh for all that is green in God’s good wallet, put your guns down!”

All four guns were holstered immediately. As Job’s gun lowered, his voice rose.

“I don’t like it, Wade. We’ve got a good thing here. Inviting someone new — lady or not — is like adding too much salt to the soup. It’ll ruin it, and there’ll be no way of fixing it without throwing the whole thing out.”

“Was that a remark on dinner last night?” asked the broadest of the men. “I told you it was Elton who put the extra salt in the soup, not me.”

“And I said I didn’t know you’d already done that, Trent,” Elton, presumably, said, gripping the brown sack he had worn over his head on the train and shaking the burlap at his cousin.

“I take it the food could improve?” Lucinda asked Wade.

“Ma’am, you have no idea,” said Job. “We ate hearty last night, but we were up all night guzzling from the water skins.”

“And delayed this morning from pissing it all out,” said the final man who hadn’t spoken — the wiry, clean-shaven one with a scar cutting through the hair on the side of his head.

“I’m a decent cook,” Lucinda shrugged. “If you let me join your crew, I’ll make sure you never dine on salty soup again. Daddy always said I made the best venison stew this side of the Mississippi, with biscuits to match.”

“Biscuits?” Elton asked.

“Venison?” Job asked, subconsciously licking his lips.

“Whatever meat’s available, really,” Lucinda said. “Mushrooms, too, if meat isn’t an option.”

“Wade,” said the clean-shaven man. “I think we’d be fools to pass up at least this woman cooking us dinner tonight, don’t you? Because there’s no way I’m having one more spoonful of that salty slop Trent forced down our gullets last night.”

Trent looked ready to grab his gun, but stopped short when Wade barked, “Fine.”

He walked up close to Lucinda, so close that his coffee-tinged breath heated her face. She stood up straighter. He wasn’t much taller than her — maybe a few inches — and on the uneven ground, their eyes were level with each other. Wade shifted to the side a little so he’d be taller than her again.

“You’ll cook dinner starting tonight,” he said. “We usually take a week or two between robberies. See if you can last that long—”

He paused, and Lucinda realized he didn’t know her name.

“Lucinda,” she said. “Lucinda Ellis.”

“Wade Higgs,” he said. “That there is my brother Job, and the big fella is my brother Trent. The redhead is our cousin Elton Walters, and the baby faced bast— I mean, man — is Jimmy Clearwater, but we just call him The Squirrel on account of how fast he climbs trees.”

The Squirrel gave a mock salute.

“Well, don’t just stand there, boys,” Wade said with a sigh. “Let’s put this loot back in the bag and get back to camp. Lucinda here is going to cook us dinner.” He raised his eyebrows at her before turning on a heel and walking deeper into the forest.

Maybe the old adage her mother had spouted was true, after all: It certainly seemed like the way into mens’ train robbery gang was through their stomachs.

Excerpt: Eddie Fitzjohn

We trudged up the stairs, each step echoing on the concrete. Every door was in varying degrees of decay: A couple paint chips here, a fully rusted door handle there. A few looked as though they belonged to tenants refusing to acknowledge they lived in a shitty rundown building — a “Welcome to Our Home” hanger dangled from Apartment 409’s door, while a wreath of wine corks clashed with the mint green of Apartment 419 — but for the most part, no one was keeping up appearances.

Raff stopped in front of Apartment 428. The paint was in good shape, but the knocker was missing. As he raised his fist to rap on the metal, I looked to see a letter jammed in the tenant’s mailbox. Part of the addressee’s name was visible, halfway out of the slot, and suddenly the identity of the “muscle” that Raff had been talking about was no longer a mystery.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re an asshole, but not that much an asshole.”

“We need Eddie,” Raff shrugged.

“Like I need a hole in the head, no thanks,” I said. My face was burning, my knees radiating with the desire to either kick him in the nuts or sprint out of the building and down the street — maybe both, in that order.

“What do you have against talent?”

“Nothing, if it doesn’t belong to your—”

I didn’t finish, because the door opened, and I came nose-to-nose with “talent.”

Here’s what I knew about Eddie Fitzjohn:

Eddie was born Edmunda Fitzjohn seven years before I was born Sylvia Erris, and by the time I popped out of my mother’s womb, she had a six-figure contract with a top ad agency as the face of Puppy Love, the hottest clothier for kids between five and eight years old. At 12 she had her own Disney sitcom called “Everything Eddie,” and by 17 she had renounced the Mouse, emancipated herself from her parents, and turned up at some small liberal arts college in Canada, where she extracurricularly ran an underground fight club for women sick of being prey at frat parties.

Graduation came and went, and she not only had two degrees in economics and philosophy, but also a blossoming mixed martial arts career that ended abruptly when she took to the internet to expose her manager as a pussy-grabbing sexual predator with a thing for 14-year-olds. He got three years probation and a life ban from the league. She got three months of internet trolling and a life sentence to self-imposed anonymity.

Of course, all of this knowledge was readily available on Wikipedia for anyone interested, which I wasn’t until a year ago, when I found out that Eddie Fitzjohn had been in a long-term relationship with one Raff Manning — and it had ended less than a year before Sy had entered his world.

Vignette: Still life of an in-joke

“Let me get that heifenweiser,” Charlie said once taking her coat from Leslie and slinging it over a director’s chair that sat next to the apartment door. Above it hung a dartboard with three darts pinning a picture of the president to it. At least, she thought it was the president: His face had been obliterated by holes.

Charlie turned into the kitchen, leaving her to meander into the larger room and get a better feel for who she had just decided to go home with, much to her friend’s chagrin.

It was a strange haven, to be sure: The blue fuzzy dice hanging off the ceiling fan. The stuffed Pusheen cat sitting on the window sill. A couch draped in a sublimation-printed tapestry depicting the final battle of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, still creased and reeking of the plastic that encased it during shipping. A desk cluttered with playing cards, dice, magazines, hand-scribbled notes, and a smooth copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that didn’t have a single mark or crack in the spine — so meticulously scattered that it looked to be on purpose, a still life painting befitting an eccentric nobleman-thinker. When she picked up one of the clear boxes of different-sided dice, she noticed a clean line of dust that had settled around it.

It felt like the scene from The Great Gatsby where one of the partygoers drunkenly discovers that his host’s books have never been read.

Charlie returned from the kitchen with two bottles of beer, each bearing a label written only in German and bearing a scantily clad woman sunning herself on the wing of a 1920s airplane.

“Cheers,” he said, clinking the neck of his bottle to hers. The glib-globs of the orange lava lamp on the side table reflected in his glasses, which were just big enough to be ironic.

Everything about this place seemed to have been procured and placed as part of some inside joke that Charlie had, and it made Leslie wonder if she had been selected to be the next oddity to be used for his personal image.

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.

Axiom Thorne: Sweet, sweet thirteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I closed my eyes and blew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know what this is?”

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

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

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

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

I snorted in disgust.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“These are my roaring, roaring 20s”

He looked like John Mulaney, and I kissed him — not at midnight on New Years, but sometime around 12:38 a.m.

At least, I think he looked like John Mulaney. That could have been the gin martinis making my eyes thirstier. He was taller than me, even when I stood out like a sore toe in a thigh-high stiletto boots, and had the same long, 1940s face with the added charm of a small gap between his front teeth. Dark V-neck sweater. Clear liquor in a glass. Can of Red Bull because he asked the bartender for it. A medical degree in the works.

I though he was named Ken and from Philly, but when he gave me his number, learned he was actually named Phil and from Kentucky. Blame the gin and the number of times he twirled me around the dance floor like it was 1920, not 2020.

That’s what happens in a time machine. Through a subtle entrance sandwiched between a CVS and parking garage, down a flight of stairs, and we had slipped a century away. A big band greeted us from the main stage upon our arrival. Charlie Chaplin illuminated the library wing as a woman swung from a suspended hoop behind a popcorn vendor in plum brocade. Tasseled burlesque dancers performed behind crimson curtains in another side room. The stage was flanked by “Adults Only!” peep show nickelodeon boxes — dip your face into the viewing window and see Mae Dix slide off her stockings. Lift your face up, and three women in beaded flapper gowns might tickle your nose with their cigarette holders as they pass by, balancing delicate coupe glasses in their silk gloves.

Follow one of those women, and she was likely to lead you to the barber in a black vest and wax mustache, prepped with a straight razor and cream for any lady who’d like to get the closest leg shave imaginable while reclining in a chair in the middle of the main dancefloor. Exhibition at its finest, as the women would tilt their heads back with a smile, drop-pearl headpieces dangling in the light, as the barber ran the blade up their shins (though never past their knees).

At 1:30 a.m. the overhead lights came on, reminding us that we had rung in 2020 and had to return to the world of rideshares, drunken text messages, braggadocio Instagram posts, disposable fashion, Monster energy drinks, microwaveable breakfast sandwiches, scheduled blog posts, Netflix accounts, Venmo requests, yoga classes, allergy pills, teeth whitening, chipped nail polish, and Lululemon merchandise exchange lines. I had lost track of Phil from Kentucky — or was it Ken from Philly? — and had gained clear consciousness of the pain in my feet from five solid hours of dancing.

One 30-minute Lyft ride in a Nissan Altima, and I was home, about 10 minutes from the speakeasy supper club on a normal night, ready for the roar in my ears to subside for just a few hours so I could get some sleep and start 2020 well-rested and ready to dance the nights away all over again.

A flapper in black and pearls sits in a barber’s chair in the middle of a club dance floor as a 1920s-styled barber shaves her legs.

A flapper gets her legs shaved at Untitled Supper Club’s “Bootleggers Ball” on New Years Eve 2020

Vignette: Slim for what

“I’m not skinny for you,” she said, bolting upright in bed. She pulled away from his fingers as if they had turned to cattle prods reaching out to trace the ribs under her skin.

Truthfully, she wasn’t doing it to look like a magazine ad or provoke even more men to buy her disgusting vodka cocktails or catcall her from their cars. She woke up at five every morning to exercise, ate small lunches, avoided the sweets aisle at the grocery store, etcetera, because she liked when people underestimated her. The pitying, hungry smiles they flashed at this bird-like creature whose skin was too tight for her bones as they assumed the least of her until it was too late — she had swallowed them whole, and she hadn’t gained a pound.

Short Story: Would You Like To See Magic? Would You Like To Do Magic?

Oh, mamma, I didn’t mean to do it I didn’t mean to make a deal with the man in the scarf and diamond shoes at the end of the block but OK yes you told me not to talk to him, and I didn’t think you meant not to be polite you’re always saying I should be polite so when he said Hello I thought I should say Hello back and then he said he liked my hat and I said I liked his scarf and the next thing I knew it felt like that long blue and white scarf was wrapping around my wrist and pulling me into the alley where he lives and then he handed me a cup of tea from a kettle over the trashcan fire and it tasted so good, mamma. No, not as good as yours, of course, but so good, like the way marshmallows smell when being burned over a fire of dry leaves on a cool October night, the night that Ansolo wrapped me in his coat and told me he would always love me no matter what no matter if the sun goes black and the skies turn solid.

And that’s when the man said Axiom Would You Like To See Magic and the flames in the trash can turned purple, not like your dress purple, but like the flowers on the lavender bush outside, like the color I’m always trying to get right with my paints but never do because I add too much white or too much blue or the green accidentally runs into it. They were so beautiful, mamma, and they spit vibrant silver sparks unlike any fire I’ve ever seen before, and then he asked Would You Like To Do Magic and what color I’d like to turn the flames next, and I thought of one, and they turned that turquoise shade that only silk can hold.

I asked him what else he could do and he took my hand in his and put a thumb to that scar on the back of it from when I fought Brandlee on the playground when she was making fun of Tobi, the new half-orc in our class, and suddenly it disappeared and I didn’t have the crescent moon of her nails etched on the skin anymore and, mamma, it felt so good, like someone had peeled a layer of pain off my flesh and I could stretch and dance and breathe again. And I thought Ansolo, lying in that bed, waiting for me to come and read to him or paint by the window while we talked or, at least, while I talked as he can’t really talk much without tiring himself out and coughing and falling asleep now that the Sickness has reached his lungs and I asked the man if he would come with me to see Ansolo so he could heal him and the man just laughed and flung his scarf over his shoulder and said I didn’t need him to come with if I learned how to heal Ansolo myself.

Mamma, I know I shouldn’t have I know that I know you said not to enter into deals with strangers, let alone the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, but he said it would be easy and that all I’d need to do was shake his hand and I’d have the power to heal Ansolo and turn fire purple and turquoise and do so many other things like vanquish evil so elves like Brandlee would never make fun of half-orcs like Tobi and I don’t know how he knew all of that but his diamond shoes were so shiny and he was so nice and the tea tasted so good and I went to Ansolo’s house feeling like the man was still squeezing my hand like I was walking hand-in-hand with a phantom and my arms and chest and legs tingled in anticipation of knowing that I could cure Ansolo now and make him better and we could finally get out of this little town and have the adventures he promised me while wrapping me in his coat that autumn night.

And it worked! It worked, mamma, and once I had taken Ansolo’s hand he stopped coughing and his legs started to twitch under the blanket and he actually swung them over the side and stood up and walked to the window, right past the easel I had been painting at and looked out at the trees like he was getting up from a good night’s sleep instead of months of slow death as his body gave up on him. And then he looked at me and asked me Who Are You.

I’m Axiom Your Wife I told him and I went to stand with him at the window and take his hand and remind him how he would hold me just so like our bodies were designed to fit together and he pulled away and looked at me like I always looked at the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, that is to say Go Away I Don’t Know You I Don’t Trust You I Don’t Want To Talk To You, and my heart burst out of my chest and dropped to the floor with a thud as I saw in his eyes that he didn’t know who I was and that my easel by the window had disappeared and so had the paper flowers and birds I had hung from string over his bed and so had the tiny portrait of us at the festival last summer and so had the ring he wore around his finger to tell everyone that he was mine that I was his that we were lassoed together with gold bonds that couldn’t be severed.

And I realized as I twisted my own gold ring around my finger, holding tight to it so it wouldn’t disappear too, that he didn’t know me that he didn’t remember me that to him that night by the bonfire with the marshmallows and the moon hadn’t happened or at least hadn’t included me and I saw over his shoulder the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes sneer at me as he held something aloft that sparkled in the morning sun and it was Ansolo’s ring and memory of me. I was so distracted by the sight that I didn’t notice that Ansolo was about to walk right into me then walked right through me like I no longer existed in his world and I wondered, mamma, if I didn’t exist for him if he didn’t exist for me either, but I know that’s not true, mamma, because I still had the ring on my finger and I still could smell his skin and hear his laugh and remember when we first met as kids on the bank of the creek by our house where we caught gillyfish in our bare hands until the backs of our necks were red with sunburn. Why, mamma? Why did the man with the scarf and diamond shoes take me from Ansolo, but not Ansolo from me?

It’s agony, mamma, like Ansolo took a part out of his heart and I took a part out of mine and we swapped them, like trading out two identically shaped but differently colored puzzle pieces except now he’s handed my piece back and has walked away perfectly whole, somehow, while I have this extra piece of me that was once part of him jammed inside of me reminding me that he once loved me but doesn’t even know me anymore and I’ll always love him but will never be able to get him back.

Why are you looking at me like that, mamma? What do you mean you don’t remember Ansolo?

Excerpt: On the business of hiring henchmen (from “Nobody’s Hero”)

This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, inspired by the Man Who Wears Time on His Arm when he asked me what I thought the life of a henchman would be like. We were watching The Equalizer at the time.

“As I’ve learned, there are two kinds of people looking for a job as a super villain’s henchman,” Wilcox said, tenting his fingers like he did during his lectures. “There’s people with nothing to lose, and people with everything to lose. Both have their pros and cons, of course. People with everything to lose will do anything to protect it, and people with nothing to lose have fewer inhibitions — you’re smart enough to surmise that. But they all have one thing in common: They’re dangerous but necessary liabilities.

“Sometimes they think they can double-cross you. Sometimes they decide they have a thread of moral fiber in them and go to the authorities. I had one guy try to use his brief time studying psychology to psycho-analyze me, which I must admit was entertaining. But as annoying as they can get — and I hope Todd can forgive me for this —” Wilcox turned, and for the first time Pru noticed that the burly man who had dragged her into the room was still standing by the door, silent as a suit of armor and twice as stiff. “They’re protection.”

Todd gave a thumbs up, as if the statement was praise for the job he was doing. Wilcox returned the gesture and leaned in to seek another pastry from the plate. Really, it was so Pru could hear him speak softer now:

“Ever notice how it’s always the henchmen who die first? The main villain is always the last to go. So you see, I have to staff my operation with as many desperate and-or delusional people as I can as a means of survival. Smart people need not apply — the more useless intellectually, the more useful they are physically.”

“So Todd there?” Pru asked, leaning in to survey the snacks herself.

“Linebacker for my high school football team,” Wilcox said. “Went through senior year twice, and not because he was challenged in his learning but because he was challenged in his motivation to do anything but body slam other teenagers. Our 20-year class reunion hit at just the right time for both of us. He had just gotten let go from his park district coaching job, and his wife had left him in debt up to his eyeballs. And I had just started this research, so I gave him a job.”

“Do you pay benefits?” Pru asked half in jest as she lifted her teacup to her lips, relieved that the handle had cooled down. He was right — the raspberry flavor was much better when added as syrup after the brewing process.

“Of course,” Wilcox said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “With life insurance to be paid out to his two kids, Bianca and Trevor. They’re only 10 and 12 now, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re 18.”