Best ever inbox today, but for now I'll keep that to myself... !
Meanwhile, still editing the ms. into past tense, just came across the following passage. Must have done it late at night, because I only half remember writing it:
"I pulled down the red leather box and rinsed my shoulder with rubbing alcohol. The stinging went deep, all the way into the bones of my arms. Finally, I slid my shoulder under the tap. The cold faucet pressed uncomfortably into my skin as the water dredged icily through the ragged marks, carrying threads of blood down the sides of my arm.
There had always been a portion of me that loved pain. Pain was shelter. It focused my mind, bringing me clarity; a quiet that tilted through me like ice. Pain was my drug, and I watched myself now, waiting for the old feeling in me to rise up and take its taste. But the rush never came. I was numb.
I greased the cuts with long snail trails of Neosporin, and then, walking back to bed, I saw the frostwork of old scars on my thighs peeking up curiously at me from beneath the hem of my sleep-shirt. Who was I becoming?"
Dark & lovely, that's how I like it.
Andrew and I, feeling grand before a dear one's birthday party on Isle of Palms.
The last few months I've felt more deeply in love with Andrew than ever- losing James, my brother, has been so hard that its made me deeply grateful for everything good in life.
As Andrew puts it, sometimes you just have to let go and let Donna Summer tell you how it is.
I la la love you, my beem beem.
But I still can't quite juggle!
My cousin came to visit us recently, and another dear friend- T- took us out to see
Drayton Hall and Middleton Plantations, where he foxhunts with hounds on the weekends.
It was extraordinary. The hush of the place, the tremendous beauty, made it feel as though we were walking together through stopped time. And it is always wonderful to spend time with T. He's beautiful to talk with and so much fun. For a little while we were able to meet regularly at St. Albans
to work together but we've both been traveling so much we hadn't been able to align in a while.
I was a somewhat neglectful host, as I still had to finish edits on the manuscript for that agent. Finished it at 2 am last Monday. Deep sense of relief. Happy with it.
But... in discussions with other agents, there seems to be a clear preference for manuscripts written in past tense as opposed to present tense. !
(Here's an interesting article about it.)
So because I made all these delicious revisions to the thing when putting it into present... I've started work on a 2nd version of it which is written in past. The story works well either way, frankly, and I just. want. to. place. it. Don't care.
You've got to be tired about hearing about all this, but hopefully it is helpful to somebody out there. Anyway, this go-round is cake, because I'm not making any more revisions. (Okay, maybe a couple. Am endlessly obsessive.)
Anyway. So I'm doing about an hour a day on Savages, flipping Evening's Land back into past, and trying to stay on top of freelance work as well: no time to do much more than make notes in the journal. So clearly: am awful at staying on top of this place, but even though I'm an infrequent poster, it's helpful to have it niggling away on my to-do list all the time, because otherwise the journal would have fallen by the wayside. Even though I can't put a lot of what I write in there on here, I do source from it sometimes. And when all's said and done, I want to have it, you know? Life goes so fast.
Also, little snippets in it- the explorations of mind and the character studies, primarily- are incredibly helpful for my fiction.
I do think everyone should try to keep one. Yea, we all fall wicked behind on them, but I can't imagine any other tool more helpful for... well... civilization.
If you are very honest with yourself in the pages, and also sometimes use them for contemplation,
you can't help but want to try a bit harder at being a more decent version of yourself. And if you write about others for long at all, you gain empathy. Also- what a wonderful snapshot of mind. Although, as GVG pointed out once, how terrible if anyone finds it!
Well, to paraphrase the immortal Scarlett O'Hara.... I'll just think about that tomorrow.
Meanwhile, dear, you may not see me for a while. No surprises there.
"Grinning wryly, he opens the door to the library across the hall from my bedroom. But I skitter through the door in front of him, re-wrapping my towel around me.
“Oh, after you,” he says.
“Yes.” I love my father’s library. Sway-bellied bookshelves frame the big chesterfield pushed up against the far wall, and the fireplace is reflected in leaded glass windows that extend from the gleaming floorboards all the way up to the pressed-tin ceiling. During the day, the whole room is washed in tides of light and leaf shadow; at night, when dusk becomes a smoky reef across the room, it is as if the walls fold back and separations between objects dissolve: the world is unmasked as the indivisible water it is. If libraries are aquariums for dreams, and for dreamers, reading itself is the removal of the glass."
Yup, I'm editing the whole thing. Again. All over again.
I've got the full manuscript out with (!) a dozen agents now, and one suggested I do a run through for tense, as there's a couple passages that are unclear.
And... you know what... I realized that the whole novel, except for the flash-back chapters, is better as present tense. So.
Fuck. Shit. Here I go. Again. And of course, I find myself editing other things as well.
You've seen the above passage before in its earlier incarnation. The difference between that version and the one above- well, that pretty much explains what I'm up to right now.
So Savages is on hold again, and pretty much everything else, too. But... it's ravishingly gorgeous porch weather. And the pages fold back... and the separations between objects dissolve... and pretty soon I'll be finished again.
.... are you curious about the rest of the chapter, though?
"I go towards the sofa, where a book of Caravaggio’s paintings is cocked across one arm of the sofa. Niall picks it up and flips through its pages. It’s one of Dad’s favorites, littered all through with pen doodles and coffee rings. One of his favorite ways to get ideas is to sit down with a pile of art books and tech magazines.
“You spend a lot of time in this room, Miss Walker?” Niall says.
I flop down onto the sofa.
“Sure.” Braiding my hair out of my face, I wriggle back into one corner of the sofa and fold my legs up beneath me.
“Mind if I smoke?” he says, and I smile.
“Open a window first.”
He does and then begins crumbling tobacco from a pouch into the bowl of a pipe, which has materialized from the pocket of his jacket. He sits beside me, letting his leg fall against mine as he presses tobacco into the bowl with the stained pads of his fingers. When he’s tamped the pipe full, he lights the thatch of tobacco with two matches, drawing once before letting it go out, creating an insulating layer of ash.
“It’s got a ceremony to it, doesn’t it. Pipe smoking.”
“Oh yes,” Niall says. Tamping the ash with his finger, he settles down to smoke, taking slow draws while he moves his match around the bowl, sipping fire into the tobacco.
“An old ceremony. Men have always liked fire. We learned to make fire before we learned to speak. Strange, isn’t it? To think of anatomically modern humans, sitting silently around the first campfires.” He smiles, blue smoke pluming around him. “Sitting there. Just staring at each other.”
Niall shakes out the matches and drops them into a mug on the table. The room is colored green from the streetlights through the magnolias; now and again, a bolt of lightning makes the lamps shudder.
“But maybe what they wanted to say didn’t need words at all. Maybe words have just gotten in the way of everything.”
“That’s one way to think of things, certainly,” he says.
“Hm.” I slide my fingers down between the couch cushions and tug up a flask. “Brandy?”
“Nice stash, but none for me, thank you, Ada.”
The blade-sharp sweetness, lighting first my throat and then my head. I soften, lean back.
“Ah.” Niall snaps his fingers, watching me. “That’s why you were out in the rain- you are Drunk, young lady, drunk, with a capital D.”
“Maybe. And what about you?”
A creeping electricity begins to move over my arms, and I look up to see a boy-sized shadow at the window.
“Ada. Get away from him,” the boy says. The ghost.
I close my eyes, casting my thoughts to him. “You just want me to see you- you get stronger when I see you. That’s why you keep coming through to me, isn’t it?”
Go away. Leave me for now, I don’t want you.”
“Wonderful storm,” Niall says, watching me.
“Yes, it is. A wonderful storm.”
“You’re an unusual girl. But then isn’t everyone, once you get to know them.”
“Some people are boring,” I say.
Niall’s pipe lights in his hand, as strongly as if he’s drawn on it.
“Must be a breeze in the room,” I say. “These old houses.”
“Maybe you aren’t asking the right questions, then,” he says. “Everybody, absolutely everybody, has a story. Some might surprise you.”
“You really believe that?”
He re-crosses his legs. “I surely do.”
Creek cold fingers run through the underside of my hair, gently undoing my braid. My spine tingles as the boy, invisible to Niall, strokes my hair down over the arm of the sofa. When I don’t react, he won't let go of my hair, and I have to stretch back, casually lifting my arms up behind my head, batting at his hands.
“Stop,” I say to him, silently.
“Maybe I don’t make such a good pet after all,” the ghost says, bitterly. I feel his breath at the side of my face and then he comes around the sofa on his knees, looking at me searchingly. He kisses the hollow of my neck and rests his face alongside mine.
I look at Niall. Surely he’s felt the temperature drop in the room. But Niall only draws concentratedly on his pipe, looking at our bookshelves.
“Listen to me,” the boy says, intently. “Niall is not what he seems. You have to get away from him. Listen to me. Now.”
I struggle free of him, brushing my hair indifferently over one shoulder.
“Yet you dislike parties,” I say to Niall, my voice uneven. I’m still shaken by the idea that the ghost might be using me, instead of the other way around.
“I don’t have the right touch. Party talk takes a happy frivolity, which I don’t possess,” Niall says, watching me keenly.
The boy flickers, growing weaker, and then slips away. Whether he’ll admit it or not, I know that I’ve figured out he does become weaker when I ignore him. Which means that he must become stronger every time that I call on him, too.
Will the same hold true for Nell? -if I can find her.
“But Jo is excellent at it. Party talk,” Niall says.
“So you think your wife is frivolous?” I tip back the brandy as lightning ghosts over the room. The lamps flare.
“Mm,” he says.
“Maybe what you want to say doesn’t require questions at all,” I say, laughing.
“I think you’re a little young for me,” he says.
“That’s not what I meant-”
Niall shifts closer, and I feel a strange bloom come inside me that is like the flaring of the lamps- and the boy returns, so faint this time that I can hardly see him at all.
He grabs at my wrists with a rapidly eroding grace. “Ada, get away from him, don’t you see that this is not a game?”
“You think I’m coming on to you, Niall? We’re only talking…” I stand carelessly and go towards the windows to look out at the storm, my pulse racing.
I can see Niall’s reflection studying the small of my back.
“Maybe the thing, the problem here, is the brandy. Too much brandy,” I say, and pretend to drink again.
The bloom fades back. “I remember my first drink,” Niall says. “You feel it running along under your skin, just as if it were loosening flesh from bone, yet it’s wonderful, completely wonderful.”
He taps his pipe gently.
“You know, some people hate it. To feel that straitjacket of inhibitions just sliding away. Losing control, making mistakes.”
The boy brushes my cheek faintly. “I can’t stay any longer. Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise me you’ll leave.”
“You really are a professor, aren’t you, huh?” I say.
“I’m a researcher, truly, but the term doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, shall we say, in nearly the same—”
“What do you research?”
“Just garbage. Philosophy, books to ruin your life, make you question everything that you cherish and believe in.” He smiles wolfishly. “In the end it all comes down to a single idea. A man is just a man and no more. Anyway.”
“Anyway is a strange word, when you think about it. It’s a secret passage of a word. ‘Anyway’- it always takes you from here to there.”
“Ada, my dear, you are fascinating, and I have forgotten myself. It’s late. You should go on to bed. I can show myself out. Your parents probably don’t even realize I’m still here.”
“You haven’t finished your pipe.”
I feel the brandy in me coming on as a delicious, slow swimming-up. Niall still holds his pipe between his fingers and I touch it experimentally, testing its warmth.
“Good night, Ada,” he says, and goes quickly down the stairs.
"Nell pointed at three of the stricken men on the lawn. It took me a moment to recognize them as the predators that had raped her in Nogales.
Now their shivering bodies were bound into packages under the trees. They were rocking in agonies wrought by a movement in the air, and their faces were distorted by metal spikes: one that ran straight through their tongues and cheeks; another that was driven through their lips, catching their pulled-out tongues, so that the flesh hung outside their mouths like folded lunch meat.
A frothy pink lacquer coated their necks and jaws as they lay seizing in the grass, their eyes nearly garroted from their heads, like wet grey eggs about to bulge free from a hen’s cloaca.
Nell watched them intensely.
“Do you see this? Now its their lives hanging from the fucking spider’s thread. How do you like to dance, fuckers?”
Her hands curled into claws, and one of the rapists pummelled forwards, as if he were being whipped repeatedly between the thighs. The men and women in robes lay in agony, too- twisting as if their veins were being rubbed to powder. One by one their expressions eroded, the way trees will unfocus under a hailstorm, all their shape and individuality flat-lining under the repeated violence."
-excerpt from Evening's Land.
Neil Gaiman's repeated warnings about the horror in his latest book, Trigger Warning, has me revisiting mine :D EL is pretty dark in places.
More full requests! Still waiting...
Meanwhile, I've been working on Savages in longhand, filling up notebooks. Aiming to have a sturdy full draft in hand for my residency at Martha's Vineyard this spring.
My marvelous aunt, who has read my work for years and gives me all kinds of fantastically useful feedback, sent me this quote a while back- from an artist named Darlene Allen:
"Eventually your art will become someone else's souvenir of your life."
My aunt's an elegant one, and couldn't resist tweaking it a little:
"I thought one could easily change it to "your supposed life," she said.
I wrote back:
"Oh, I love this. Especially with your addition of 'supposed.'
Souvenir is so perfectly placed. I know that I have flags-souvenirs- in my heart and my head for all of my artistic heroes- what I imagine their lives to have stood for...
It's true through: ultimately your work is taken all of a piece and is assumed to be you..."
Fantastic weekend, managed to be somehow lazy and productive. Those quiet, lingering days have a way... been spending stacks of hours at the new cafe down the block (literally half-way down the block: they know me pretty well already...) and what is it that is so satisfying about meeting friends out, working together, chatting, then working on after they've left? I could write a book of love letters to cafes, coffee shops.
Re-vamping the query.... yet again. I stumbled into QueryAgentConnect, which has turned out to be a very helpful crit forum. Lots of serious, hard, fast workers with solid input. Much appreciated.
Both Andrew and I've had some great news today :) He won some major clients over this morning- and tripled the size of his branch of the company. And it's only January... looks like its going to be a massive year for my sweet beem. And I got another scholarship! This time to Martha's Vineyard: two weeks in April to write, and with a stipend, too. (!!) Awfully nice to have two things to celebrate on the same day :)
Kind of inures me against the (often very kind) rejections from literary agents that periodically turn up-surprise!- in my inbox, haha. Every now and again a request for the full manuscript... every now and again polite demurrals, saying that it's just not what they're looking for...
inure, demurral... I've got to get Proust finished up, or he'll infect Savages, hah.
It’s 4:30 in the morning, my roommate’s lover rolls out.
I hear him leave and pad out naked into the dark to check that he’s locked the door behind him- and he hasn’t-
-the burbling fishtank, the silent kitchen, everything blue in the dark-
“Moonlight. Her shadow flew over the room like a sweeping hand as she dipped to fluff her hair, still listening. The expectancy of silence. As if these rooms were waiting for something to happen. Their sudden, prickly closeness pressed in around her like cupped hands: where was he? Mary turned on the light.”
And now I can't sleep. I run from room to room in the house of my head, looking for a place where I can stop thinking. But each of the rooms- I’m dreaming now- has something off about it, until finally I’m in the garage of my parents’ old place on Alvamar. I slip into a sumptuous black town car- whose?- I’m cradled in its cool, soft black leather; sinking into deep sleep, into a final absence of thought.
Then there's a sudden, blistering awareness of the garage door being opened; I’m turning, there’s a trollish man leering there. Red-haired, with an anonymous, generically terrifying face. I’m simultaneously trying to cant myself back against the horn, to slam down the garage door opener, but my body is locked into slow gear. I jolt myself awake, whacking the lampshade so that Andrew flops over, groaning.
Then, as I waft about in unsleep, something whole comes to me. I write it down.
Is it cogent? I can't tell. I'm running on black coffee and chia seeds. Another month of this and my eyes will look like fried eggs.
Here’s the thought:
'My novel is Anne Rice's daughter, crazy in love with Neil Gaiman's black eyed kid, playing together on that spooky old piano in the field back of Clive Barker's place.'
Of course I start fidgeting with it, emailing myself various edits of the same silly sentence:
'My novel is Anne Rice's runaway daughter, who's crazy in love with Neil Gaiman's black-eyed kid; they're playing together on a spooky old piano somebody tossed in the field back of Clive Barker's place. Call it Southern Gothic.'
Hm. But maybe I can work it into my query somehow. Or maybe it is garbage. I really can’t tell. I'm a fried egg.
Ahhh…. but it comes to me now, who the man in my nightmare is.
This is why I write this, because everything knits together, sooner or later-
he’s the man from the soup kitchen in my hometown. I remember that I wrote a story with him in it once, and do a quick search through the old stories on my drive, using terms that I think will be in it.
And boom, there it is. Titled Separation, although I could have sworn I'd always called it The Lizard King. I wrote the thing a long time ago, and there’s bits of truth stitched in between the fiction, so its sort of like having a conversation with my 15-18 year old self. Maybe you'll like it, too. This seems like as good a place for it as any.
Separation, by Pauline West
He was basking in the sun, letting this girl pour herself all over him. She’d been buying him drinks all afternoon, but now he started singing to me from across the patio. He had a wonderful voice. And his eyes could charm the halo off any girl’s finger.
But I hardly reacted. You’d have thought beautiful older men sang to me every day. The thing was, I was there pretending to be a sophisticate--pretending to be glamorous, wearing an old dress out of my grandmother’s closet. It was a dive where the real artists went, and I wanted to make the right impression.
He came to sit with me. I let him stay. The way he moved and spoke made me think he was some kind of lounge lizard king, and I liked it. Before I left, he made me promise I would see him again. He wanted to show me his poetry, he said.
“I hate bad poetry,” I said.
“Are you trying to make me nervous?” he said.
“It’s working. You keep messing with your hair.” I reached out and smoothed it behind his ears.
We started seeing each other all the time.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’m fifteen?” I said.
“How old do you feel?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
But Tyler was twenty-eight or something. The truth was, I still felt like a kid. That’s why I wore my grandmother’s dresses. I wanted to learn how to be a woman, a real woman, like my grandmother. She was halfway famous once. When I was little she told me it was because her dresses were magic. “Black magic,” she said. “You can have them when you’re old enough.”
I believed in those dresses. They made me feel like her—mysterious and remote, carelessly elegant. But I wasn’t. I was only a girl, abstract, unfinished. No match for the lizard king.
We liked to sit on the bridge with our legs dangling and throw berries at traffic. We could never do it for long before somebody tried to come up after us, but that day we’d stayed longer than usual. He was teaching me how to smoke.
“No, no, you aren’t breathing in right. You have to breathe it into your belly, see, like this? And then hold it there.”
It burned. “I’m going to swoon,” I said.
“Swoon?” he said. “You read too many books. Come here.” He took a quick, sharp hit, and grabbed me. “Breathe in,” he said, and exhaled into my mouth. I sucked him in and held him there, staring at him while I did it. Something lit and flared at the end of my spine, making me tingle up and down. I glowed at him.
He smirked. “I feel like we just kissed.”
“Kiss me really,” I wanted to say, huskily, like an old-time movie star— but really I just sat there, staring.
He laughed, and helped me stand.
“Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe,” he said. “If I say it a fourth time, you’ll belong to me.”
But after that he was silent.
Our hands lingered; then he had to go away somewhere. I wandered home alone, high as a bat. I teetered at stoplights, waiting for the light to change, and men honked crazily.
I was seeing halos around all the streetlights and it got me thinking about how I used to believe in angels. For some reason I thought the Virgin Mary was my angel. I had dreams about her coming to me in my sleep and everything. Probably in some other age people would have thought I was some kind of shaman. But you learn to be secretive in Catholic school, at least if you've decided not to believe in all the parts that they teach, so I kept Mary my secret.
Stoned and alone in the dark, I tried to remember what it felt like to believe. I couldn't, and felt ashamed. Because I was the kind of girl who was still trying to see angels, or because I no longer could? You tell me.
Another night, Tyler and I were out walking. We’d spent all day together. Now it was dusk, lights were coming on in all the houses. People’s windows were open, and from the sidewalk we could hear inside--people setting their tables while their kids played. Televisions on in the background.
“Electric light takes away the mystery,” Tyler said. “Anytime we feel like it, we can just flick a switch and see what’s really there and what isn't.”
“Huh,” I said. He was always saying things like that, practicing how he sounded. He didn’t care very much what I thought because I was too young to really count. When he started talking like that, I’d just smooth down my dress and relax, letting his handsome voice trail all over me. I didn’t even need to listen to what he was saying. I felt like we were inside a beautiful painting. That was all I cared about.
“What do you think?” he said.
I looked at him.
“Well, I like to see things as they are,” I lied. “Not the ways I’d imagine them, if everything were dark.”
“I bet you’d believe in God if we didn’t have electricity.”
I shrugged. “He’s the best bedtime story I know.”
“Maybe you need a new bedtime story then.” We stood close together.
“Look, watch this,” he said.
He swept his hand in front of us, and just like that, all the lights in the city went out. He pressed against me in the warm dark.
“Do you believe in God now?” he whispered.
Shrieks and then laughter lifted around us--little kids running to get candles. Soon little dots of light showed behind the curtains of people’s living rooms.
“I love the smell of matches,” I said.
He came closer. I was aware of the warmth of the road as it drifted up beneath my dress. My grandmother’s perfume slipped out from the warm fabric and coiled behind my ears. Ask him to give you a bed-time story, it whispered.
“No,” I said.
He walked me home. He didn’t turn the lights back on, and I was glad. I was embarrassed. For all my bravado, even in my grandmother’s clothing, I still couldn’t figure out how to be a woman. What was my body supposed to do when it was kissed? I was aware of my posture, my movements, but I did not live inside those lines: my body was something separate from me. Where I was actually located, I didn’t know, but I knew that a kiss, a real kiss, required for me to meet him halfway, which I could not do.
I liked the idea of him, and the ideas I had of sex and forgetting, freedom—but suppose you did give yourself over, what if you lost yourself forever? I wanted to learn to live inside my body, live in the moment, but I was so terrified I’d be taken. You can’t ever really trust someone else, especially not with yourself. My secret self was safer where I kept it—in a place unknown even to me.
And Tyler could swallow women whole.
I’d seen him do it—women he introduced to me and then discarded, replaced—women who loved him, who gave themselves to him. They trusted him because he was beautiful. But he ate them whole like fruits, and threw them away. Each one of them probably thought she was going to be the one to change him, but he was insatiable.
I imagined his discarded women drifting like ghosts in the streets, Tyler turning the streetlights out after each of them, one by one. If you love somebody and they throw you away, you can never get over it. Part of your soul disappears, becomes a ghost. My mom was like that after my dad left. She was helpless, like a ghost. Grandmother had no sympathy for it. After a while she didn’t visit us anymore.
Maybe that was why I used to feel like the Virgin Mary was hanging around me all the time. I needed somebody. I’d feel the Virgin touching my back when I was asleep; I was aware of her still when I woke. The way I imagined her, she was very feathery and pale. I believed she was next to me all day, no matter if I was sucking dog kibbles or terrorizing my younger brothers. It was like some kind of secret superpower.
At our school we put on two masses a week. On Sundays, we had to go to a third mass, and afterwards my mom would volunteer us to work at the LINK kitchen, which was this free slop line for the homeless. You chopped up stuff and prepared it, and then you stood behind these big tables and doled it out to the bums. All kinds of them came through. Scary ones, junkies, drunks. Once time there were a bunch of hippies. You didn’t see a lot of those in Kansas. They all walked like they were dancing, and their eyes were shining, some of them were even singing. I told one of the younger guys that his scarf was very beautiful.
He didn’t miss a beat. He dashed it off and tied it around my own neck so that I looked like some kind of Parisian. I couldn’t believe it. The scarf was black silk with red and orange tie-dye. I’d never met somebody who just gave people things, and all I could do was look at him with this big stupid grin.
“Wear it in health, girl,” he told me. I looked for him after we were done serving but I never did see him again.
Mostly it was scary there, but when I felt the Virgin’s hands on me, I could do anything. The hungry people would smile or cough, their mouths were black with desperation—a lot of the time my brothers ducked under the table and hid when someone really creepy came through, but because of the Virgin, I could take up their ladles and serve for them, too.
We could have hidden upstairs in the church, but we didn’t think that way then. That’s the funny part about being a kid—you haven’t figured out how to protect yourself yet. We figured we were stuck there until mom came back, and that was that.
Anyway, one Sunday we were really busy, and I had to go into the outer room for some reason, I think to get more bread. They kept the bread in the room where the bums ate so that if any of them wanted to take a bag home they could take it without needing to ask. As I walked out into this room, a little redheaded man grabbed me. He and I were smaller than everyone else, standing well beneath the sight line of the crowd.
We were the same size, but he was old. He put his face right up to mine. It was terrifyingly blank, emotionless, something from a nightmare. I’d seen him before—a lot of places downtown gave him free coffee and food, like he was some kind of mascot, but now he clamped his hand over my face and started to drag me to the men’s room. He hobbled; one of his feet was clubbed. I saw everything like it was happening from far away, in slow motion, like a dream.
I screamed and screamed, but only inside. My angel had vanished. I felt like one of those baby gazelles you see when the crocodile has it by the neck and the gazelle understands that it will die, but then somehow my mom came from out of nowhere and grabbed me back. She hustled me away from him, and as soon as we were alone she shook her finger in my face.
“Nothing happened,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing ever happened, nothing ever happened.” She stood next to me the rest of the afternoon until I’d finished my shift, and then she never took us there again. We didn’t talk about it either. I forgot about my angel Mary. I wore the black silk scarf all the time.
A couple years later I took to wearing the scarf wrapped around my hair, always with these big gypsy earrings. I still religiously wore my grandmother’s magic dresses, even though I’d worn them ratty by then. I was seventeen, and I believed in Jack Kerouac, too, besides her dresses. A fraying black ball-gown seemed like something he would have liked, and I didn’t feel right wearing anything else.
I also had this idea that I needed to get away from the ordinary, safe little life my mother craved, and was always trying to create with her new boyfriends. After a particularly bad day at home, I decided I should see the world instead. Tyler would take me, I figured. We’d been in and out of touch, but when I called him the first thing I said was, “Remember how you told me anytime I needed you, you would come and get me?”
“Yes,” he said.
If he didn’t recognize me right away, he played it off beautifully. And his voice, oh his voice, it was more wonderful than ever. Low and intimate. There were some people at our old bar who called him the Radio, because he was such easy listening. I loved the nights he brought me to parties and I could fall asleep on sofas beside him, his voice slipping into my dreams.
“Where are you?” he said, sounding like he was already right next to me.
“I’m under the tree,” I said, knowing he’d remember the one that I meant.
It was an old tree, easy to climb; we used to climb up into it sometimes instead of going for a walk. I waited for him a long time, day-dreaming about skittering all over the world with the lizard king.
And suddenly he was there.
He was nothing like I’d remembered. His voice didn’t match him anymore—he was skinny and dirty, he was broke, he’d stopped writing (“everything’s been said, anyway,”), and the ponytail I loved was gone.
But I decided to believe that these things were what made him a true poet. He was too pure to care about the conventional trappings of success and competence. We took off in his car, a little hatchback.
He squeezed my thigh, a little shyly. “Watch this,” he said. He waved his hands, and all the stoplights flickered out.
“Seen it,” I said.
Still, it was nice: driving all the way out into the country without having to stop once.
We camped three days. The plan was that we’d live on fish and flowers, but that didn’t work out, so we were always going back to town to get donuts or pizzas out of the dumpsters. Tyler knew all the places.
“I live outside the system,” he said, pulling out a spotless long john. “See? Live free or die. None of that J-O-B stuff, not for me.”
But all the time he was watching me carefully, like he was worried I didn’t believe him. He took a huge bite of the donut. I noticed the skin under his neck had become loose, deflated, like an iguana’s, and all I could think of was that old Peggy Lee song—“Is That All There Is?” I thought we were going on this great adventure, but instead I’d just become another bum. I wondered if this was how that redheaded man fed himself, too.
I was still a virgin and wanted to wait, although I didn’t understand why. Catholic school gives you these knee jerk responses.
“No,” you hear yourself saying, to everything: “no, no, no.”
Tyler said he understood. At night he just kissed me and held me, even though I knew he thought I owed it to him. He’d grind on me from behind, kind of softly, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and this made my heart turn cold.
I started to hate him.
It was only when he went into the trees to take care of himself that I’d think anything nice about him at all. Maybe we were spending too much time together, I don’t know. But I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be, except inside a book. I wondered if I would have felt different with a real artist, maybe, instead of somebody who just looked like one, talked about being one.
“We should go,” I said, on the third day. “My parents will have called the police.”
“They don’t know about me, though, do they?”
I chewed on my thumbnail. “I forgot my journal,” I said.
So we drove all day and night to Monahans, Texas, where just about everybody is hiding from something, and they know better than to ask you any questions. We got ourselves jobs at a steakhouse. Everybody there stole food all the time, so we always had enough to eat.
We skipped out on rent all over town for months before anybody caught on. Our last night there, with nowhere left to go, we hiked into the sand dunes and went wandering deep into the shifting landscape. Oil pumps heaved up and down under the moon like they were kneading something shameful back into the ground. Scorpions scuttled all over the place.
“Put on your shoes,” Tyler said. Things had changed between us. His voice was bright and hard and flashed in the air.
“No,” I said. “I don’t need to.” Even after my feet started bleeding, I wouldn’t put on my shoes. Everything was fine.
Finally the sun roared up on the horizon, and Tyler said he thought he’d go to Mexico. The way he said it, I knew that I wasn’t invited, even though by now he’d said my name plenty of times.
It didn’t count unless you said it four times in a row, though. “Tyler, Tyler, Tyler.” I said. “Tyler.” He looked beautiful all of a sudden, with the sun coming up behind him. I felt bad how things were turning out. Also he’d seen me grow up, and I knew that little-girl part of me was going to go with him the moment he left.
“Okay,” he said.
“Listen,” I said.
Someone had tipped me with a little vintage watch on my last day at the steakhouse, and I’d kept it in my pocket. It was the kind you could hear ticking.
Tyler didn’t wear watches because they always stopped when they touched his skin. He was the kind of person who could have turned everything off in the world if he wanted to, but I guess he was afraid. Neither of us was quite all the way shaman. I bet you my grandmother was, though.
He listened to the watch’s polite ticking and smiled. The watch had a picture of a penguin inside, and the man who gave it to me had taught me the word “penguid,” for somebody fat who waddles when they walk.
“It’s for you,” I said. I strapped it to him and listened to the watch’s heart drop silent. “Don’t forget about me.”
“What will you do now?” he said.
I was as surprised as he was when I heard myself say, “I guess I’ll go to college.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, and that meant something, because he'd always called me Marlowe.
But I wouldn’t let him kiss me goodbye. I saluted him and went off in the opposite direction. I didn’t look back until I was so far away I knew he couldn’t see me, and then I sat down and cried. You might think two near-shamans might have made a whole person between the two of them, but you’d be wrong.
Now there was even less of me than when we started. My body felt different. There was less of me for the sand and the wind to push against. But instead of blowing back into the desert, it was easier to slip away.
Sometimes I dream that the little man comes back and gets me. I dream that my mother never shows up to save me, and the man takes me down with him, all the way to the darkness. But the Virgin follows me down. She stays beside me the whole time, feeding me dreams within dreams, so that I look the other way and my heart stays safe.
I wonder about what I remember. Maybe it didn’t happen that way—maybe I just wish it did. I’ve asked my brothers about it. They don’t remember our mother ever coming into LINK to pick us up, much less working beside me on the line. So I wonder if time has scabbed across the truth, and it is hidden inside me where I cannot get at it—black under the skin, like a broken blade, my body healed tight around it.
My family has a bonfire every November. We come from all over. My brothers and aunts and uncles, all the cousins. There’s a lot of us. The fire is for brush, but sometimes we also burn old chairs, bad photographs, or court summons. When my grandmother was alive, she threw all her rings in, and the fire burned blue for hours.
I hadn’t been to the bonfire for a long time, but a few years after Tyler left me for Mexico, I decided to show up. My family and I were strangers to each other by then, but they were surprised and happy to see me. They let me stand in their circle to watch them burn up their pasts. We ate gumbo and they sang songs and asked what had happened to my pretty dresses. They seemed pleased that I was in school, and it was nice to see my brothers again, although there wasn’t much to say. Nobody knew where our mother was. I guess I wouldn’t have known what to say to her either.
After a while, I walked back to my car. I had parked a long ways off in the dark. I couldn’t see well. The fields waved in slow currents and it was like crossing a river at night. The world stretched out wide and dark, but I wasn’t afraid. It occurred to me that I was part of it. I was part of everything all around me.
I belonged to it—the prairie, the darkness. Even to my family behind me, huddled around their vanishing pasts. And this vastness, it belonged to me, too: my grandmother’s magic, still alive in her dresses; my mother’s lost ghosts and her angels—I could even feel Tyler somewhere inside me, too, very small as he went across the desert, looking for the place that would love him.
I hoped he would find it.
I've been writing & publishing under an additional pen name, making some extra scrilla. And time drifts... but I'll be back.
Last month I did yet another full rewrite on Evening's Land. Putting everything into first POV, adding tension, more of a backstory. I think I've got the first two thirds in pretty good shape. But now the final third is comparatively blah.
I'll revisit it in December or January and then relaunch my efforts with agents... still have a few that are pending, thinking about what I sent, I guess. With the holidays there's an understandable slowdown. I'm just hoping I can get one to bite hard so I can nudge all the others and hopefully then achieve a cascade effect... only one of them has the newest version, and I'd really like them all to see it, as I think that'd make a helluva difference. But you're not supposed to nudge unless you get an offer of representation. And so. I work & wait.
Since I'm planning to neglect you really, really terribly now, I'm going to leave you with the new opening to the book. You can see I reordered some of the chapters, and you can see the new voice of the main narrator. (Jesus Christ, I can't wait to get back to working on Savages....)
I'll paste in a little bit of the old intro as well, so you can see the differences.
⇥ Evening’s Land ⇤
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead….”
====== Chapter 1 ==================================================
Roy Northcutt had been drinking High Life ever since uncle Bake slapped a cold one in his hand on the first and only morning Bake ever took him noodling for catfish. His uncle was a big, barrel-chested autocross champion with a scrim of curly red hair that could have upholstered a sofa, and dancing ladies tattooed up his arms- so when Bake winked and said, “Son, this here’s the champagne of beers, the breakfast of champions,” Roy drank it down. He was ten.
The first gulp was like blood and nickels, and the next came sweet and bready and light and suddenly it was going down like Missouri sunshine. The lakewater sparkled as Bake launched over the side and slapped the boat, wading them towards a nest of cattails.
“Now this is what you call a very old technique, kiddo,” he said.
Roy listened. He was looking out for cottonmouths because his mother had warned him that Bake sometimes got “fast and loose.”
“Men been catching fish this way for damn near eons. When you grab hold of your first bad boy its like catching hold of where you came from, you understand me?” Bake grinned. His hair was thin and orange in the sun.
“Yes sir,” Roy said, although he didn’t understand.
“Now, these stumps here, this’n’s where a lot of holes is, and the catfish, they like to belly on in and hole up, see? They feed at night and sleep during the day. So I’m gonna stick my hand in and feel around. If you don’t feel anything that feels like a catfish, son, you just bolt right the hell on back, all right, cause like as not its a snake or turtle. They all like the same holes.”
And Roy felt a little scared, but he nodded.
He shook his head.
Bake guffawed. “That’s all right, this time you can just watch. Here, give me another.”
Roy did, shyly taking another for himself. Bake opened one and then the other with his teeth, spitting the caps into the boat. Ping. Ping.
“All right. Mother fucking yee-haw, right kid? You and me, we should do this more often. So I’m gonna reach down in there and haul me up a catfish. Trick is, you want him to take yore hand as bait and then you reach in and grab his gills, kind of hook your hand in, you know what I’m saying? And then you tug him out.” Bake whacked the boat again. “Here I go. See you soon, kid.”
He slid under. For a moment Roy could still see him, his uncle’s broad curly-haired back luminescently pale beneath the silky green water. But Bake must have finger walked deeper, towards more interesting and lesser known holes, turning his back to the friendly shore. The water sealed above him, smooth as glass, and Bake disappeared.
It must have looked for all the world as though Roy were out there alone on the lake, a kid high on his first beers. The afternoon buzzed. Somewhere a frog jumped in. It began, gradually, to seem as though Bake had been gone an awfully long time, although he didn’t know how long noodling should take, or how long Bake could hold his breath. He listened to water lap hungrily at the boat.
(fast and loose, that’s what his mother had said)
But Bake never came up again. Roy didn’t know how to start the engine, so he leapt off into the cold lake and flailed to shore. Every slip of algae against his legs made the blood beat hard in his throat; any moment he expected a heavy, cold strand to close over his ankle, to pull him down into the dark. He plunged through the cat tails, his toes sliding in the warm, bristly mud. He was screaming now- maybe he’d been screaming all along.
“Bake! Uncle Bake!”
But the lake was silent, staring accusingly back at him like a big green eye in the earth as Roy stood on the shore, his heart shrieking in his chest. He ran up to the road to flag down a truck. Then it was hours later, there was a crowd and flashing lights, he was still standing there shivering down by the lake in a policewoman’s blanket when they finally drug up poor old Bake’s body out of the miserable goddamn water, and Bake was bloated and cold and incontestably dead.
The skin on one of his uncle’s big freckled forearms was sawed through.
“That was one great big catfish, yes it was,” some cop had said.
And that was uncle Bake. Murdered by a catfish in a sunlit pond. Just 28 years old. Bake had been just a kid then, too, but of course Roy had no way of knowing that then. Now, some thirty odd years later, older than Bake would ever be, whenever Roy Northcutt drank a beer, he drank High Life.
He was on his third of the evening, enjoying the fine porch weather of early April in Charleston, South Carolina when an alarm in St. Philips, a gated colonial era church across the street, began to shrill. St. Phillips. He shot to his feet.
Those big wrought iron gates were locked every weekday at four-thirty, smack on the dot. There was no way some tourist could have bumbled in to trip the thing off. Roy quickfooted it into the kitchen, snatching his 40 cal Glock from the drawer and his walkie talkie from the counter. He ran outside, calling dispatch as he dropped into the street.
“Unit 1 to dispatch.” Trying not to pant. Those Millers had nailed him.
A woman’s voice crackled. “Unit 1.”
“This is the Chief. I’ll be responding to an audible alarm at 142 Church Street. The church.”
“Copy, Chief,” she said.
The gate was hanging open. Jesus. Roy lit up the stairs and kicked the door; it swung in on dark pews. “Unit 1 to dispatch, there is an open door.”
“All units transmitting on Channel 1, standby.”
He had his Glock out, crossing his right hand over the left one that held the walkie talkie. Smell of candle wax and dust, Jesus Christ, why were all churches so fucking creepy? The statues of saints were the brightest points of lights in the place. He swept his gun from side to side, his body packed solid with adrenaline. There. Someone was kneeling at the altar, a youngish long-haired man in a black coat. Praying?
“Police! Put your hands in the air! Dispatch, there is someone in the church.”
“Are you 04?” Dispatch said, as the man turned slowly and smiled, his pale, hooded eyes seeming to deepen as they fixed on Roy Northcutt.
“Hands in the air! Is there anyone else in here?”
The man’s hair was the color of toasted malt, and he brushed it back from his handsome face carelessly as he stood, still holding Roy’s eyes.
“I repeat, is there anyone else in this church!”
“Oh, yes. The Holy Spirit, officer.”
Roy relaxed, trying not to laugh. Fantastic. A crazy man. He lowered his gun slightly.
“Are you 04?” Dispatch said again.
“Yeah, we’ve got a six-seven,” Roy said.
A sound tufted behind him. He knew that sound; knew it instantaneously even as the bullet ripped through him. Shot. He was shot. He went down. Blood, carpet, it all went black.
“Shot fired! Are you 04? 322 Edward, start en route to 142 Church Street. Requesting all additional officers en route to 142 Church Street. Officer, are you 04?”
The blonde man stood at the altar, studying Roy’s body with interest. He glanced up as the shooter loped out from the back of the church and down the aisle, his long, olive-colored coat flying open behind him as he crossed through the pews, away from the blood, to the other side of the church.
“Officer, are you 04?” Dispatch said.
Sirens wailed from the dead man’s walkie talkie as additional officers signed on.
The man in black turned, crashing over a statue of Mary with a gloved hand. Her head rolled onto the floor; he lobbed it through a stained glass window. The shooter rapped out the remaining glass in the pane with his gun. There was an explosion of sound, instantly stoppered by the grass outside as abruptly as metal chimes stopped by a hand.
“After you, sir,” he said.
The walkie talkie crackled behind them on the wet red carpet. “Chief! Are you 04?”
He leapt free into the yard.
=========== Chapter 2: There was a Girl,============================
======================== and there was a Ghost====================
Three Years Later:
June 7th, 2014
My dreams smell like fire; paper lanterns drifting apart in the hot light of day, harmless as balls of dust. But at night I’m caught inside them. I close my eyes, my mind rises into lanterns of smoke and fire, into shadow worlds of sleep. My friend is there, faceless as a cloud, and doors pull me through again and again into my past.
Into a white room that is filled with blood, and her letters.
A man’s smile, floating there like an errant moon- he reaches to grab me. To pull us both back into the car. His hands are so cold they sear through to my bones, and I can’t scream. I can’t scream and I can’t wake up, and it hurts when I finally do. The lanterns come apart and I slide free of my tangled sheets, cold with sweat, and stare at the dust circling in the light from the street.
Sleep waits in my bed like a man with a gun.
Even now, wrapping myself in a towel, I can almost believe it waits behind the fog in the mirror, too. My voice clicks in my throat, loud in the silence. I cut the fog clear with the edge of my hand, but the mirror’s surface only clouds again, swallowing the reflection of my earrings like golden fish sinking deeper into a pond. Long earrings, bronze like my eyes. I don’t look at my eyes, though.
I dress in my room beside the old fireplace, looking out the leaded glass windows into the street. It’s summertime and the bricks are flooded with bicyclists, tourists. The occasional car or carriage tour is welded down there, too: the multi-colored gridlock staring up admiringly at all the colonial-era houses.
A couple years ago my parents were doing the same thing. He bought this place for her on a lark. That’s what they called it, but we knew it was his final, last-exit stab to try to save their marriage. They’ve been fixing the house up these last couple of months while I started college. But that didn’t exactly work out, so here I am. Just the three of us, like before. Locked together in free-fall, like always.
Just outside my bedroom is a door that opens onto the second-floor gallery into magnolia trees. When you sit there you’re almost completely hidden from the street, like you’re in a treehouse. Leaf-filtered sunlight and wisteria is sweet in the air around you, and the soft, creaky floorboards are covered in golden pollen and warm from the sun. Nell would have loved it.
I see it again, my last memory of her, in a hard wash of light like a camera’s flash. The post-it note, wilting down from the warm bathroom door, covered with Nell’s big, scratchy handwriting-
Ada don’t come in.
Our dorm room carpet was slushy with bathwater under my bare feet as I tore open the door. There was blood in the water and half-dissolved pain pills coming apart in the water like tiny little yellow pom-poms all around her. She would have gotten a minor kick out of that, the pom-poms.
I wonder about those men in the car, the terrifying darkness that lived inside them. I wonder what it was about us that made them select us out of the crowd. For a long time afterwards, the darkness that lived in them seemed to be inside everything. Even the desert sunlight. Even the sunlight, began to seem glittering, ruthless. We couldn’t take it.
We’d retreated into our room like the drying tide, Nell and I. We were gonna wait things out with cigarettes, booze, anime cartoons. That was the plan. We were gonna wait it out together until we felt better. Until people bumping into us by accident in a crowd didn’t seem like icy hands, like floating smiles- I mean, we hadn’t even told our parents yet. Nell didn’t have the best relationship with hers.
In the end, I had to tell them alone. Mrs. Taillefer’s face in the dorm’s hallway, stretching tight as a balloon. By then it was a crime scene. Mrs. Taillefer kept repeating the words I said to her, as if she were trying to use them to climb out of something, the unimaginable dark hole that was swallowing us both. “She just-couldn’t anymore. She was tired, she was tired.”
I pick up my tobacco and go out onto the porch to roll a cigarette. And sitting there within the envelope of drowsy light coming down through the trees, it still seemed so strange to be alive, to be real, when Nell was not and never would be again.
Still, I wanted a cigarette. And so long as you can keep your wantin’ pants on, you’re still in the game. That’s what my mom says. Anyway, that’s what she used to say, before they started treating me like some kind of terminal case.
I pull out a sheet of transparent paper and drizzle threads of tobacco into the crease, rolling and compacting them carefully into a whiskey-colored ridge. The air around me is soft and full, carrying rain, and the warm floorboards are gritty with pollen under my feet. The tobacco smells sweet on my fingers, like wood shavings. The crackle of the papers is a sound as pleasant as the turning of a page. I finish the roll, licking it closed from end to end, and start to file it into the old silver makeup compact I use for a cigarette case, but I light up instead and sit there, listening to fire eat away at my tobacco, the way daylight singes at the edges of a dream.
I’m rolling another when I notice the paper beginning to soften in my hands, and the air cools slightly. Rain starts clicking through the trees, echoing off the cobblestone street. People shout and run to their cars.
I can’t get used to it, all this rain. In Tucson, the summer downbursts couldn’t ever cover the whole city at the same time. You could see a storm on the horizon and follow it along in the distance with your finger, like a hair-comb coming down from the sky to make neat, dark furrows across the city. You could smell the creosote bushes on the wetted air and the rain was like bathwater. Big, lazy drops you could follow all the way down your windowpane. And after an hour or so, the sun came through again, drying out the air.
Here in Charleston, it rains hard for days at a time, sometimes weeks. The air never dries out, not completely. Sometimes you can even feel condensation gather between your fingers when you walk. The streets swell with rainwater, floating up cars, and college kids paddle down the streets on their surfboards and kayaks.
I went inside and opened my windows. I had to push hard to get the panes to lift; it was an old house, and the property had been abandoned for years before my parents bought it.
Something to do with an unlucky death, the realtor said. And when the rain clicked down on the trees outside, you got this feeling like the house itself was remembering its secrets. When rain fell, strange noises lived in the walls, and shadows came unfixed, while outside the magnolias clawed to be let in, out of the rain; the falling towers and balconies of unending rain that fall on summertime South Carolina. Yet the floorboards were warm to my feet, and the rooms smelled like vanilla and books in the sun. In watery sunlight I lay in bed, reading shadows on the walls.
And from there we go downstairs and meet her parents, and then when Ada goes to sleep everything goes sideways.
Here's the way the beginning used to go:
⇥ Evening’s Land ⇤
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead….”
Silence waited in the house like a man with a gun, watching the rain slip in. For the boy belonged now to Silence as flies belong to the web that kills them.
But Christopher hid himself in dreams.
=========== Chapter 1: There was a Girl,=============================
======================= and there was a Ghost=========
Ada’s dreams smelled like fire; paper lanterns that drifted away if she didn’t write them down. She had to trap them with a pen. That was how it started. She wrote them down.
The boy was always there now when she went to sleep, his touch shivering through her, licking cold into the doors of her bones. His floating smile like an errant moon beside. Even now, as she wrapped herself in a towel, she almost believed he was behind the fog in her mirror.
“Who are you?” Ada whispered, cutting the fog with her hand.
The mirror only clouded, swallowing the reflection of her earrings. Earrings bronze like her eyes. Gypsy eyes, her father called them. And she was alone.
She dressed in her room beside the old fireplace made cheerful by the leaded glass windows surrounding it. Standing at the windows, she looked down into the street, flooded with bicyclists and carriage tours admiring the colonial era houses. And just outside her bedroom door was a second-floor portico that opened into magnolia trees— Ada loved her room, though it was changeful.
The property had been abandoned for years before her family arrived. Left to go wild in the center of Charleston, South Carolina, it was something to do with an unlucky death, the realtor said. But when it rained, the house remembered its secrets.
When it rained strange noises lived in the air of the house. Shadows came unfixed, while outside the magnolias clawed to be let in, out of the rain; the falling towers and balconies of unending rain that fell on summertime South Carolina.
Yet the floorboards were warm to Ada's feet, and the rooms smelled like vanilla and books in the sun. In pale sunlight she lay in bed, reading her dreams.
“Dinner…?” Tobias said.
“Mom said to make sure you ate.”
“Of course, of course. Well, have you eaten? I’ll bring home something.”
“No, daddy, we have roast beef here. Come home, I’m lonely. I’ve been alone all day.”
“Did you finish your report?” he said.
Dr. Walker was wonderful that way— he kept a notebook of things to ask people about. Once he’d left it unguarded beside her in the car. Ada: silverwork, bicycle, college apps.
“Almost,” she said.
At nine o’clock, he came in the door to lay his newest flavor of IceAir on the kitchen counter. Ada tasted a disc. “It’s fizzy, salty... caramel, or something. Mmm. Not quite caramel. More than caramel.”
“Do you love it?”
She kissed his rumpled forehead. “I love it.”
“You always say that.” Beaming, Tobias sat back at the scarred kitchen table, crossing his long legs. He’d forgotten to wear socks, and his ankles were marbled like expensive cheese.
“Do I?” She dolloped roast into their bowls.
“What shall we call it?”
“Lovely, cherie. I’ll run it by Mike tomorrow. Now tell me about your report. It’s, ah, about voodoo, isn't it?”
“It’s about lots of things,” Ada said, pulling off her rings, arranging them on the table. She picked up the arrowhead, tracing it over the lines of her palm. "I’m going to incorporate this thing about Muhammad Ali, the boxer? He was explaining how he maintained focus during a fight; he says he goes into a room, daddy, a little room he keeps in his mind."
"Is that right?"
"He goes into this room and there's a mask on the wall. A warrior’s mask. And he takes it down and puts it on. Just during fights."
"Becoming the mask," Tobias said. "Marvelous. I wonder what sort of masks you and I should keep in mind. Ha ha."
"You could have one with crazy Einstein hair."
Tobias touched his hair absently— for some reason Ada had it in her head that Albert Einstein was his boyhood hero. Over the years she’d given him Einstein mugs and Einstein calendars and Einstein shirts and aprons, none of which he ever remembered to use. “Mm?”
"To help you be smart. And divorce mom.”
“Jesus, Ada. Yours would be someone with tact, I hope."
"No. With confidence." An elaborate sigh.
"Did you ride your bike downtown today, gingersnap?"
"Maybe tomorrow. When I start up school again, I was thinking I'd do homework at coffee shops. You know, to meet people."
“The coffee houses will be full of frat boys.”
“You mean writers, artists… cafe life...”
Her father rolled his eyes.
“Oh, you hate everyone,” she said. “Such an elitist.”
“I’m not. Just— specific. Listen, I know it's summer, honey, but what if you began your studies early? We could find a group, you could check in with them… Your cousins homeschool year round."
“I am studying. I’m doing this report, remember?”
“That hardly constitutes—”
“I thought you wanted me to follow my interest? I am. I’m ok so far, aren’t I? Daddy, make me a love potion.”
Tobias leaned back. “But how would you feel if your mother and I—”
“You’re saying you think you could?”
“I can do anything. I can even customize it so you fall in love with Mike.”
“I love these little conversations of ours. Mike’s great. He’s nice.”
“Just what I always wanted. The guy who picks his nose with his pinkie.”
“You could do worse, homeschool.” Tobias rumpled her hair. “He said to tell you hello, by the way.”
She ducked his hand, fixing her hair reflexively. “Have you found an assistant here yet?” Tobias shook his head, picking up one of Ada’s rings as his wife came into the kitchen, grocery bags braceleted over her arms. She kicked the door closed, and on second thought turned to see if she’d marked it.
“Fuck. Oops. Well, that’ll buff out, don’t you think…?” Then Mary was shaking groceries onto the counter; lentils, butter, spices; wet, flopsy slabs folded into butcher’s envelopes. Thinking: what if she began using her maiden name again?
“Where have you been?” Tobias said.
Mary: date nights—
“… I went out with the boys. The interns,” Mary said. Birlant-Walker; it was like poetry. “The fish you can get out here, just incredible. It doesn’t even smell like fish.” She held an envelope to his nose. “Smell.”
Her smile too quick, too wide. Mary turned away, slamming cupboards, shoving in groceries. That smile. “They’re doing a story on diners and dives. How’s the roast?”
Ada pressed her toes into the rug.
“But we said we’d take a break from the station. Make a fresh start.” Tobias reached for his wife.
“‘We?” She danced away, shining. “You mean I’ll take a break. While you go on as you always have— I’m the one who’s supposed to stop everything. Remember? Well, how nice for—”
“We moved across the fucking country to do this again? Mary, goddamn—”
Ada picked up the plates and went up to bed.
A movement in the air— a lingering drift, hovering over her. The house circled, while Ada waited under the covers, breathing wildly. What was that?
(just a dream, a horrible dream)
She slid out from under her quilt, feeling foolish. Funny how colors looked different in the dark. Her quilt was like a negative of itself.
But that wasn’t right. Something was wrong. That sound, it was the one from her dream— something else was in her room. It came onto the bed. Ada scrambled back, too frightened to make a sound, and the thing drew over her, otherworldly, monstrous.
Snuffling at her neck. Oh, horribly real. She shrank back, trying to level into the sheets. What to do? Hit it with a candle? A book? But she couldn’t even scream, and the way it moved— Heavy, so fast!— with such long, oily teeth—
Shadows poured into the air.
And friends, if you're still with me here, thank you.
Hold your dear ones close this holiday. Be understanding of those who seem disquieted or are difficult to be with. You never know what someone else is carrying. Shame, loss, grief- pain wears strange faces. But we are all in this together, at least for a little while longer. Be kind, love hard, and breathe deep. After all, what do you have to be scared of?
a better day :)
This is a wild soul-book