Axiom Thorne: Before there was Ansel

I’m sure by now you’ve inferred that I got my warlockian powers just in time for Ansel to mysteriously disappear from the landscape of my life. You forget: I’m the one painting this picture, and it’s not a landscape, but a self-portrait, which means you get to see exactly what I want you to see the way I want you to see it.

If you squint and look past the last layer of oils I smeared on the canvas, you’ll see another figure. Stephan, the baker’s boy. He was beautiful, and he hated me.

No, that’s wrong. He liked me, but in the way you like having an old scab ready to pop off the skin: Something to pick at.

If it wasn’t tripping me in the mud, it was baking pine needles into a cookie that he slipped into our weekly order with a note that said “For sweet Axiom, Love S.” Mamma said it was because he liked me. I still say it was because he was an asshole.

But the thing about picking at scabs is that you eventually peel off all the crusty, curling skin and hit fresh flesh underneath. And when you do, it bleeds.

We were playing along Bounty’s Creek. “Playing” might be the wrong word, as my version of it was watching Stephan pluck tiny fish out from the shallows and place them on rocks to flip, flop and bake in the hot sun. I was entranced, not repulsed, by the way the light glinted off their scales, almost strobing as they danced away their last breaths. But Stephan couldn’t care less, sweeping the dead bodies back into the water to make room for his next victims. Whenever he’d pivot around, the light would flash off the gilded viper fang that hang around his neck — a trophy from a kill, he’d boast, even though we all knew it was purchased off one of the roving traders that came through town.

I must have stepped on a twig or sneezed, because at some point he noticed me standing in the brush, a voyeur to his routine pescacide.

“Freak,” he spat at me, the one word stinging my ears.

Says the boy killing fish for fun, I now wish I had retorted.

This was about two weeks after I had first encountered the Man in the Scarf and Diamond Shoes and he had tapped me on both cheeks and told me I was magic. The tattoo on my ankle at that point looked like a couple of overgrown freckles.

So how was I to know that Stephan had said the magic word?

Just after the last fish on the rock flipped its last flop, the sun grew dark, as if a cloud had crossed it. Looking up at the brilliant blue sky, I saw instead that a mass of dark speckles had gathered above us.

Stephan let out a loud swear, and I turned to see if he was looking at the sky, too. Instead, his eyes were trained at the ground, where it looked like a landslide had started at my feet, slipping down the bank towards him. Upon closer inspection, however, it wasn’t dirt but thousands of gleaming beetles clamoring over each other to get to the water. But then I realized the water wasn’t their target.

The baker’s boy didn’t dance like the dying fish. Instead, he screamed, and the bugs from above funneled into his open mouth while the bugs from below coated his skin. It was funny, really, watching a once-human body become a wriggling mass of black exoskeletons clicking and clacking against each other. Once they had had their fill, they collapsed to the ground and skittered away into nothingness.

I stepped to the edge of the water. There wasn’t even a smudge of flour where Stephan had been standing, as if the beetles had just carried him away. But there was one thing: a sliver of something shiny poking out from the silt, just past where the water lapped against the shore. It was the gold viper fang from around his neck, still attached to the chain.

Plucking it from the muck, I polished it on the hem of my shirt. Without a look back, I trudged up the bank to the high road as I clasped it around my neck.

Vignette: The Dictator’s Punishment

When they finally extricated The Dictator from his home, they stood him on the front porch and surrounded him with their guns aloft, the barrels creating a starburst pattern around his crimson faux-military getup. And from there he had to watch as they deployed his punishment:

With the flip of a small red switch, it all happened at once. Streets named after him were rechristened with the names of the people who died under his policies. Portraits of him in government offices were taken down. The buildings he had prominently displayed his name on Lost their signage to become just another skyscraper, just another hotel. Every internet post and social media account bearing his name was wiped clean. Book publishers replaced his name in every draft with just “A Man” and pulled existing copies containing his identity from the shelves.

Nobody eradicated the facts of what he had done and how he had ruined everything he touched during his rule. They didn’t ignore the ways he had come into power. To forget history doomed the country to repeat it, and no one wanted that.

What they did do was remove the memory of his name. They denied The Dictator a legacy. Because in the end, he was never concerned with doing good for the country. He was only concerned with implanting his name in its history, raising it in ten-foot letters across the fruited plains and purple mountains majesty.

Once they barred him from re-entering the home, they let The Dictator walk freely among the people he had once ruled. The Dictator waited for someone to yell something, throw something — anything to assure him they knew who he was and remembered that he once had power.

But no one did anything. No one spoke to him directly or whispered his name. A woman hustled past him with a quick “excuse me” that he heard her reiterate to other strangers on the street in the same tone.

The Dictator wasn’t special anymore. He was just another person on the street, and it was the worst torture a man like him could ever be asked to endure.

Vignette: The Return of Calvin

From the sidewalk Calvin saw them all sitting at the bar, nursing pink martinis in precarious glasses and golden beers as tall as chihuahuas. Outside it had begun to snow, making the glowing yellowish interior lighting even more warm and welcoming. The laughing patrons in their thick Irish knit sweaters, with their sharp haircuts and soft smiles, only added to the effect.

He had been standing outside long enough to lose track of his nose, fingers and toes, all carried off by the cold. A couple snowflakes slipped down the back of his jacket with perfect aim, and he took it as the universe’s signal to either muscle up and walk in, or keep going in search of somewhere else to thaw with a glass of Scotch or port, or any of the other pricy potables he had suddenly begun to crave.

But before Calvin could turn to go anywhere — the door, the crosswalk — Tyler looked up from where he had nestled his nose into Melissa’s neck and gazed straight through the window. Their eyes locked.

Tyler’s expression was the same as everyone’s that day when Calvin turned up. The internal dialog was broadcasted through the twinges and tweaks of his facial muscles, which morphed like a grotesque time lapse feed:

“That guy looks just like that weird dude, Calvin. Wait — is that Calvin? No, it can’t be Calvin. I know what that guy looked like and that is not him. But he’s got those weird amber eyes that Calvin had. It’s definitely him. But how could that possibly be him? It’s not him. Well, maybe?”

And, as he had all afternoon since coming back to his hometown, Calvin put the man out of his mental misery by giving his signature floppy wave, a trademark that earned him the popular kids’ ridicule in high school, much more than his baggy thrift store jeans and obscure graphic t-shirts ringed with sweat stains.

The bell above the bar door rang, and suddenly there were six open seats at the bar as the entire group rose to repeat what Tyler had done, gawping at Calvin in his sleek leather coat, bright cashmere scarf and dark designer jeans that framed his toned legs. He shrugged as he pulled his Burberry wallet from his back pocket to pass a gold American Express card to bartender before asking for a Glenmorangie 18-year scotch on the rocks and asking to keep the tab open.

“Been a while, Melissa,” he smirked as he pulled the glass toward him. Flanked three on each side, he felt them watch as he took a sip without the hint of a wince. “Looks like Tyler’s keeping you warm.”

“C-Calvin,” Melissa stuttered. “You— How—?”

“It was a good trip, thanks,” he said, tipping the glass in salute. “Did a lot of thinking. Some personal growth. I tell you, though. It’s great to be back.”

Calvin sipped his scotch victoriously as the onlookers gaped. Resurrection was a lot more fun than he thought it would be.

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.

Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.

Vignette: Moxie’s mood makeup

Even lost at sea, she lined her eyes to coordinate with how she felt that day.

At the start of the adventure, she painted her lids with dazzling purple glitter, adding a dot or a star that reflected how shiny and new this wave-riding world felt to her. By the end of the day, the glitter would have flaked and fallen onto her cheeks so that in certain lights, it looked like sea spray, sometimes tears.

They called her Moxie, even though she had never asked them to. Her real name was Sue, but there was a mute man on the crew with a parrot he spelled out as “S-O-O” using a fist and two O-shaped hand gestures. At least, that’s what everyone preferred to think that sequence of sign language letters meant. He could have just been telling them to jack him off. And anyway, Moxie was fine with her new moniker. She’d always wanted an “X” in her name.

The longer they floated aimlessly — except, notably, when they were plowing through the waves to get away from a giant sea monster or enemy ship — the less color she used. Sometimes it would be brown or muted green that brought out the flecks in her hazel irises: A sign that she was being particularly introspective that day. Other times it was a faint gold that reflected the red-sky-at-morning and a particularly playful attitude. And then there were the dark days, like the ones after Porfry and Greela were snatched overboard by a giant squid, or when Yaru was shot through the heart by rival pirates, when she smudged black kohl across her lids and cried it off by supper.

One night a crew-mate called Kraken snuck into Moxie’s quarters and found the tiny box containing her eye paints. It was ebonied wood with a tarnished clasp of cheap metal that had somehow not rusted shut in the sea air that cocooned everything in moist warmth. Moxie knew that Kraken was in her room the minute she heard the screams, the guttural gurgling, and seen the blood creep from under the door and into the main galley as the boat pitched. She calmly opened the door, stepped over the puddle of Kraken’s blood, and closed the box.

By the morning, the blood was cleaned up. The only sign that Kraken had once been on the ship was the stain on the wood planks outside the door. It was the same reddish brown as the dramatically winged eyeliner painted across Moxie’s lids.

Vignette: Patrick Bateman is my neighbor

I’ve got a confession to make. “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins is not on my phone.

That is why, when I woke up to the iconic bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-bah-dum-dum drum riff at the 3-minute-and-16-second mark at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday, I knew it wasn’t my alarm waking me up. That would have been the bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-beng-bum-bink-bink-beng-bum guitar of “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone.

A quick scan of my apartment confirmed that the poltergeist who had knocked one of my framed pictures off the wall two nights before hadn’t continued its mischief by turning my stereo on, either.

“You don’t know who this is?” slurred a voice as loud as the music. “How do you not know who this fucking is?”

Of course I knew who this was, but apparently my neighbor’s guest, a girl cackling with liquored-up laughter, didn’t, and was now enduring his wrath as he continued yelling over Phil’s echoing, ethereal eloquence.

And then — silence.

Maybe he’s murdering her with an ax, I thought during the absence of sound. Seems a high price to pay for not knowing a song, but Patrick Bateman killed over business card stock after explaining Huey Lewis and the News to Paul Allen in American Psycho, so anything’s possible.

The next morning I ran into her as she left his apartment, heels in hand and mascara dust powdering her cheeks. She had the flush of someone who had had a good night. Thank god I wasn’t awake to hear that part.

We stood waiting for the elevator, with her flipping through social media on her phone so she doesn’t have to acknowledge me. And I wasn’t going to say anything until she almost ran me over in an attempt to get into the empty elevator that had just arrived.

As we descended 20 floors, I began to whistle “In the Air Tonight.”