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.”

#NaNoWriMo2017 Day 7: “Split-lip Gossamer”

Blood dotted my shoes as the blond girl flung the brunette girl down on the ground. The red bandana tied around the brunette’s upper arm meant this was what she wanted.

Across the makeshift ring stood Louisa, her face red with exertion and blood. She caught my eye and smiled, wincing as the cut in her lip opened wide and trickled crimson. The glossy pink lipstick she usually war was long gone, sweated all over the floor. The blood was a better color on her, she once commented.

Louisa and I met during our Survey of Celtic Mythology class two semesters earlier. We worked on a massive project together, which I guess in her mind made us friends. I was ambivalent, just trying to keep my head above water during that 18-credit-hour semester and thankful that she did most of the work without complaint. Then again, I was so scattered that she was probably happy to ensure we got a good grade, extra work be damned.

The next time I saw her after the holidays, she wore the same coat, carried the same bag and walked like she was strutting to music only she could hear. But something was off: Her face was pink from the subzero weather, but a California-shaped bruise darkened the side. Try as she might with makeup, it was clear as day.

I didn’t ask her about it because she walked too fast past me, clearly disinterested in talking. From the shy smile she gave me in recognition as she tugged her hair to hide the bruise, I guessed she was embarrassed. So was I.

The semester before had ended on a less-than-festive note. She had gotten drunk at a Christmas party, found me there and decided it was time to give me a kiss under the mistletoe. I wasn’t sober, either, and she wasn’t unattractive. I had no idea that she had a boyfriend. Not just a boyfriend; she was dating the Hulk.

I didn’t actually see him hit her, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened. There wasn’t much I could do — the party was at his house and all — but something about the way he steered her away, taking her arm like it was the strap of a book bag, gave me the creeps. The least he could have done was take a swing at me instead.

That’s why as I walked past her a month later, it wasn’t outlandish to think the California-shaped bruise looked suspiciously like massive knuckle marks chained together.

A few weeks later, she was sitting in the library. California was gone, but there was a tear in her lip and she had a brace around her wrist. I wanted to ask her what had happened, but she left too quickly.

The next week I saw her again. Her lip was half-healed, and she had upgraded from a brace to an ace bandage. Opportunity hit when she stopped to dig her phone out of her bag. I tapped her on the shoulder, and she winced, as if I had punched her.

Louisa looked up, phone in hand. Her knuckles were raw and red.

“Oh, hello,” she said. “How are you?”

“Fine,” I said. “Haven’t seen you around in a while. What happened?” I nodded to her knuckles. She smiled the sarcastic smile that she had all of last semester when I had a question she could answer glibly.

“Would you believe me if I said it’s from Fight Club?” she asked.

“No,” I said, not smiling. “What really happened?”

“I got in a fight,” she replied, shrugging. “Battle wounds, you know.”

“He’s still beating you, isn’t he?” I started. I didn’t want the conversation to go this route so soon after our reunion, but I saw no choice. My sister had been in an abusive relationship, and I didn’t want to see any other woman just shrug and sarcastically smile it away.

“I dumped him ages ago,” Louisa laughed. “He hit me for the last time. Even told the police. They didn’t do much, of course, but his parents pulled him out of school and put him in rehab. I don’t intend to find out if it worked or not.”

My eyes squinted against the veil of her smile, trying to see through the split-lip gossamer to see if she was telling the truth.

“Fight club, huh?” I asked, deciding to play along with the joke. “Isn’t the first rule of Fight Club not to talk about Fight Club?”

“Not ours,” she said. “If we didn’t talk about it, we wouldn’t have a club.”

Thanks to Chuck Palahniuk for the inspiration.