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“Let’s do it in one” –

“Let’s do it in one,” says the red-headed man, and Marfisa shrugs. He flips up the tails of his long green coat and perches on a round stool before a keyboard balanced on a couple of sawhorses. She turns to face the soft black bulb of the microphone in a spidery clamp up about her head, a circle of fine black mesh held before it on a twisty plastic arm. “Just like we said,” he says, and crooks his back fingers wiggling over keys a moment before falling. Simple chords march out one by one to lay down the bones of a melody, and when they double back a little more certain she takes a breath and then another and begins to sing.

“You want us to call you what?” says the woman with the short dark hair, curled up in a corner of the couch along the back wall of the dim studio booth.

“The. Blue. Streak.” The kid snaps off each word in its own little bubble of speech. He’s wrapped around a big-bellied acoustic guitar at the other end of the couch.

“I mean for short. Do we call you, I don’t know, ‘The’?”

“Blue’s fine,” says the kid.

“She means it’s stupid,” says the bald man sitting on a stool before the control board. “You want to shut up a minute?” Through the thick glass wall Marfisa’s holding her hands up around either side of her microphone as if to keep a candle from blowing out.

“What’s stupid?” says the kid. “Why do we have to call him John Wharfinger?” The red-headed man’s eyes are closed, his left hand marching still along the keys, his right hand stuttering, hanging above them, sprinkling notes. “Not just John. Always John Wharfinger.”

“There’s a lot of Johns,” says the bald-headed man.

“Not in the band,” says the kid. “And I’m not even gonna get started on your name.”

“What,” says the woman, “Otto?” as the bald man says “It’s a family name. Now would the both a you shut up and listen?” He turns up the volume on the monitors. Marfisa’s voice is pure and clear and cold and she’s singing “There are signs in our sky that the darkness is gone, and tokens in endless array – ” and it takes all she has left just to hold that word aloft, and her wide open eyes aren’t seeing the foam sound baffles on the wall before her as she sways there just her curls the color of clotted cream bound in a thick rope down the length of her back. “For the storm which had seemingly banished the dawn,” her voice hushed now under those implacable chords from the red-headed man’s left hand, “only hastens the advent of day,” and as the chords step over into a new key she lifts her head and lies her heart out: “The good time coming is almost here, oh! It was long, long, long on the way!”

“Jesus,” breathes the woman.

“Wow,” says the kid.

“Now run and tell ’lijah to hurry up Pomp,” sings Marfisa, “and meet us at the gum-tree down in the swamp, for to wake Nicodemus today – ”

Table of Contents

Wake Nicodemus!” written by Henry Clay Work, in the public domain.

His madly jerking Eyes – a Venti Vanilla Latte – a Five-dollar Bill – a (brief) Disquisition on Love –

His eyes pop open madly jerking about. He’s stretched out on the narrow back seat his black suit coat draped over him like a blanket, squirming under it, huffing, fighting to free his arms. Up in the front seat Mr. Keightlinger leans one arm along the back of it offering a huge plastic cup filled with bright blue slushie. Mr. Charlock grabs it and greedily sucks it down with long cheek-hollowing pulls at the straw until the cup gurgles. He wedges the cup between his knees and delicately presses his fingertips to his temples, trying a number of grips, index and ring, ring and pinkie, thumbs and middle, thumbs alone, until he shivers and doubles over in a coughing fit, hacking something blue and sticky into a handkerchief. “Fuck me,” he says. “It was easier when I couldn’t get in.” He sniffs, pokes the straw around the cup, slurps at what’s left. “Que hora?”

“Noon’s half gone,” says Mr. Keightlinger.


“You needed the sleep. Relax. They’re coming back from Erne’s.”

“What I need,” says Mr. Charlock, “is a long hot shower. Gets warm like it’s supposed to today? You do not want to smell what I got going on. And the crick in my neck.”

“Was it worthwhile?”

“Last night?” Mr. Charlock shrugs. “Whatever they had’s still gone. The Chariot or whoever can mope about whichever damn door he wants and as long as I’m bounded in a nutshell done up by a joiner squirrel and drawn by a team of redundant little atomies, I can get in there whichever night you please. Just, please. Make it a night she’s had it good and long and hard first, okay? My ribs feel like they was kicked in by red shoes.”


“It is positively sticky up there.”

“I should call in,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Because Lord knows we should fail to report their clockwork-like assignations with the dreadful Erne.” Mr. Charlock drops the plastic cup on the floorboard among a litter of fast food wrappers and empty cups and paper sacks, then grabs the back of the front seat and starts to haul himself over. “Remember the, the old days?” he says. “Letters in gentlemen’s magazines? Bulletins hidden, in misspelled roadside signs?” He ducks his head and rolls his back into the front seat, his feet swinging around, brushing the window-glass. “Took so long,” he says, wriggling himself upright, “it’s a wonder anything, we ever got anything done at all.”

“We still do all of that.”

“Yeah, but,” says Mr. Charlock, smoothing his tie, pointing out the window toward the pay phone there by the yellow Pay Here box, “those things are fuckin’ wizard, you know? And they’re ripping ’em out. All over the place. Everybody’s got the cell phones or whatever. No money left in ’em. And here’s me thinking, strategizing, you know, open-ended detail that we’re on, what do we do if they rip that one out before she moves on?”

Mr. Keightlinger opens the driver’s side door with a popping squonk. “We plant a new one,” he says, climbing out of the car.

“Huh,” says Mr. Charlock. “I suppose that could work.”

The long thin bundle in her arms wrapped in towels Jo’s standing just inside the doorway, at the top of the stairs leading down by the switchback of the access ramp. She’s looking out over the checkstands, the florist stand off to the side, the aisles of groceries. Signs over on the far wall say Signature Café and Great Lunches and Ready Meats. There’s a very large photo of some cold cuts and cheese. The ceiling’s a maze of ductwork painted white and struts and there hanging over the top of the stairs a big flatscreen television displaying in full color the entryway to the supermarket, Jo standing just inside the doorway in her careworn jacket, army-green, eyeing the television, in her arms a long thin bundle wrapped in towels. “Maybe we should come back later,” she says. “We can pick it all up after work, I guess. Except, fuck. Laundry.”

“Can I at least get some coffee?” says Ysabel, her hand on the stair rail. The green sign that says Starbucks is at the other end of the store by the deli counter. A uniformed security guard’s leaning on the florist’s counter, laughing at something she said. The guard’s shoulder patch says Safeway Loss Prevention.

“I don’t think so,” says Jo.

“It won’t even take two minutes,” says Ysabel.

“I’ll just,” says Jo, shifting the bundle in her arms, turning back toward the door, “I’ll wait outside.”

Ysabel walks down the stairs into the store, tight faded jeans tucked into oxblood boots, a brown leather bomber jacket over a tight cropped leopard-print tank top. Clear crystal flashes from the gold pin piercing her navel. Necklaces dangle and clatter, amber beads and gold links, a little golden bee, a winking rainbowed eye, a gaudy crucifix. A soft brown fedora on her black black hair. Her lop-sided grin made it so hard to win, sings a voice over unseen speakers somewhere up among the ducts and struts, all right you are, and your promises are just promises, but a sinister little wave of her hand –

The woman behind the Starbucks counter wears a dark blue shirt and a dark blue visor and a green apron and a badge that says Petra B. Her hair’s short, though her bangs are long enough to brush the corners of her jaw, and her glasses have thick black rims. “What can I get you?” says Petra B.

“I would like,” says Ysabel, leaning her forearms on the counter, heels of her hands pressed together, “a large,” looking up at the menu board, “vanilla latte.”

“Large,” says Petra B. “Do you mean tall, grande, or venti?”

“Which is the large?” says Ysabel. “The biggest?”

“The venti.”

“Then I would like a venti vanilla latte,” says Ysabel.

“That’ll be three sixty-nine,” says Petra B.

“Is there more than one Petra?” says Ysabel. “Your nametag,” she adds, as Petra B looks up from the cash register.

“It’s my name.”

“And it’s a delightful name,” says Ysabel. “But why not just Petra? Why Petra B?”

“We’ve reached the point in the transaction where you need to give me money.” Petra B’s smile is pursed and knowing and a dark rich red.

“Hadn’t you ought to make me the coffee, first?”

“You’re supposed to pay first. That’s how it’s supposed to go.”

“But that won’t do at all. What if I don’t like it? You’ll have my money, and I’ll be stuck with a very large cup of coffee that I won’t want to drink.”

“Have you ever had a Starbucks vanilla latte before? Did you like it?”

Ysabel shrugs and nods her head to one side and says “Yes.”

“Well there you go.”

“But maybe you’re not very good at making them? I’m just saying.”

Petra B draws herself up and back with exaggerated dismay. “Is that what you think?”

“Tell me something, Petra B,” says Ysabel, the middle finger of her right hand idly scribing a circle on the countertop. Her short neat nails painted gold sparkle under a glossy shell. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”

“What?” says Petra B.

“Am I beautiful, do you think? Am I attractive? Good-looking? Would you say, in your opinion, that I’m, well, gorgeous? That I turn heads and stop traffic?”

“You’re, uh,” says Petra B, “striking?”

“‘Striking’,” says Ysabel, a wry twist to her mouth. “That’s almost as bad as ‘handsome’.”

“I didn’t mean,” says Petra B, alarmed, but Ysabel’s saying, “Let me be more direct” and she hitches up on her toes leaning heels of her hands on the countertop now lifting herself that much closer to Petra B whose rich red lips aren’t so much smiling anymore, are quivering a little, her eyes behind those glasses darting from Ysabel’s eyes to Ysabel’s mouth and back. “Do you find me desirable?” says Ysabel, quietly.

“I don’t know,” says Petra B, too quickly.

“Do you want me?” says Ysabel.

And Petra B opens her mouth to say something, and maybe she’s about to nod, when Ysabel tilts her head and lifts it for a kiss.

For a moment they stand there, Ysabel swooped up against the counter, Petra B arched over it, her hands held out uselessly to either side, only their lips touching, and then Petra B sighs into the kiss her shoulders relaxing, her mouth opening over Ysabel’s mouth, her hands fluttering down to light on Ysabel’s arm on the fleecy collar of Ysabel’s jacket jerking as if burned then gingerly settling again. Ysabel breaks the kiss, and Petra B eyes closed behind those glasses rests her forehead against Ysabel’s until Ysabel pulls back just a little. “Now,” she says, smiling. Resettling her hat. “Make me that large vanilla latte.”

Nodding Petra B steps over to the espresso machine. Ysabel stoops to peer at her reflection in the side of the cash register. Petra B’s pouring clear syrup into a large white paper cup. Ysabel’s smoothing a corner of her lipsticked mouth with her pinkie nail. The milk’s foaming under the steam wand. “Whipped cream?” says Petra B.

“No,” says Ysabel straightening, “maybe I’ll put on a little nutmeg. Do you smoke?”

“What?” says Petra B. “No, I mean, I could, I guess. I’ve never. Here.” She hands over the latte. “Will I see you again?”

Ysabel carefully takes a sip. “Not bad,” she says. “Not bad. Thanks.”

A hand slaps a five-dollar bill on the counter, a hand in a grubby fingerless bicycle glove. “Keep the change,” says Roland. His jagged green sunglasses like pieces of broken bottle.

“Oh, no,” says Petra B. “That’s not necessary.”

“You’re not needed here,” says Ysabel, her voice low, her eyes narrowed.

“Where’s Jo?” says Roland.

“She didn’t want any coffee. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Really,” says Petra B. “It’s okay.”

“Go on, miss.”

“Go away, Roland.”

“Miss, please. Take the money.”


“It’s okay. Really.”

The hand in the bicycle glove crumples into a fist over the five-dollar bill still flat on the counter.

“Chariot,” says Ysabel.

Out on the corner before the doors to the supermarket Jo’s smoking a cigarette, the long thin bundle up on one shoulder, her free hand draped over it for balance. Across the street a blocky bunker of a building, pale red brick, a sign that says Christian Science Reading Room. Down the block a construction site, a condo tower, lower levels sleeked with new green glass. A panel truck snorts past. Staples, says the big red sign on its side. That was easy. She turns just as behind her Roland stiff-arms the crashbar of the big glass doors to the supermarket bursting out onto the sidewalk to stand there in a crisp white track suit with green piping, his blue and white headphones down around his neck. “Roland,” says Jo, and he looks up to see her there, “hey,” says Jo, “I’ve been meaning to ask,” and he’s walking toward her, “about Ray, I mean, how do I get a hold of him,” and his gloved hand’s coming up balled in a loose fist, “do you have a what’s that?” and is planted squarely against her chest. There’s something inside. She sticks the cigarette between her lips and tugs out the five-dollar bill. “What’s this for?”

“Figure it out,” snaps Roland, and he walks away.

“Well?” calls Jo after a moment. “Do you have a phone number for him or something? Huh? Nice to see you too, asshole!”

“What was that about?” says Ysabel behind her, sipping from a large cup of coffee. Jo’s stuffing the money into her pocket. “Fucked if I know,” she says. “Let’s go dump this shit and get ready for work, huh?”

In the tub Ysabel’s lifting a dripping calf from steaming water, slicking it with a soapy hand. In her other hand a molded pink safety razor. On the side of the tub a translucent white teacup its rim smudged with red lipstick and a pink and white My Little Pony lunchbox. A half-smoked cigarette smolders by a black smear of ash on a yellowed saucer. “I don’t know,” she says, drawing the razor up along her leg. “He wanted to pay for my coffee.” The door to the bathroom’s half-open. Music’s floating in from the main room, a guitar, a woman singing like laughing with liquid in your mouth, like you’re choosing between laughing and spitting it all out. “Guess that explains the money,” says Jo. “Sort of.”

She’s squatting on the futon sorting through wadded-up T-shirts, tossing black ones to one end, anything with color over there, a couple white ones dropped beside her. Farmers & Mechanics Bank says one, and Mykle Systems Labs says another. One of the black ones has a big red devil’s face on it, sticking out his tongue. She’s wearing a white one with a ragged collar and yellowing armpits that says This is Not a Slogan in scrawled Sharpie letters. “I get that he’s keeping an eye on you? I get that.” She frees a grey T-shirt printed with a colorful tangle of luchadores and ninjas, dithers with it a moment over the black pile before chucking it over with the colored T-shirts.

“There was a but in that,” calls Ysabel from the bathroom.

“But,” says Jo. “His timing? Fucking sucks. He shows up to try and buy your coffee? Where the hell was he when, when whatever the fuck it was tried to jump us on the MAX, huh?” She roots around one of the blond wood crates and pulls out a pair of black jeans, reaches inside to disentangle a pair of white underwear. “Damn sight more useful than a five-dollar bill. Are you gonna be in there all night? It’s already ten after.”


“So they lock down the laundry room at midnight, and the Safeway closes at midnight, and we didn’t go shopping before work like we were going to, and we didn’t do laundry last night because you just had to see the Girl From Mars show – ”

“Which was a great show,” says Ysabel. Water sloshes as she shifts in the tub, reaching down for her cigarette.

“Which it was, but that’s beside the point. We can’t keep spending five bucks on a cup of coffee because there’s nothing but dust in the Taster’s Choice jar.”

“It’s hardly the same thing,” mutters Ysabel, cigarette on her lips, lifting her other leg from the water.

“So are you gonna be getting out of there any time soon?” Jo’s stuffing her piles of clothing into a big beige canvas sack. The boom box on the floor by the futon’s playing a new song, a lonely fuzzed electric guitar, a woman’s high and reedy voice singing if the sun shines but approximately? What a world of awkwardness! What hostile implements of sense!

“Let me ask you something, Jo,” says Ysabel, slicking her calf with soap, laying the cigarette back on its saucer, taking up the molded pink razor. “Do you believe in love?”

Jo’s sitting there, the mouth of the canvas sack in one hand and her white T-shirts and underwear in the other. “Do I what?” she says. “What the hell has that got to do with any damn thing?”

“It’s a simple question,” says Ysabel. “Do you believe in love?”

“We don’t have time for this,” says Jo, yanking the sack’s drawstring.

“What was his name?” More sloshing. “Frankie? You never talk about him.”

“Love is bullshit, okay? Now you want to get out of the fucking tub?”

“So that’s a ‘no,’ then?”

“It’s a glandular thing,” says Jo, her hands up, agitated, “that evolved so we could stand being around somebody else long enough to, to – ”

“See,” says Ysabel, “I think you’re only saying that because you’ve been in love, and now you’re not.”

“I was not in love with him,” mutters Jo, as Ysabel’s saying, “Now, I’ve never been in love, yet I can’t help but believe in it. I see it all around me, every day. It’s why Roland does what he does.”

“Never?” says Jo, still sitting on the futon, elbows on her knees. “So you and Marfisa, that was, what? You never talk about her.”

“Shit!” says Ysabel. “Ow.”

“What’s wrong?” says Jo, looking up and over toward the half-closed bathroom door.

“Cut myself,” says Ysabel.

“Well, that’s what you,” says Jo, and then as she’s climbing to her feet “Oh, God,” and stumbling over the black spear-haft on the floor past the glass-topped café table she bursts through the bathroom door to see Ysabel leaning forward in the tub one leg propped up on the rim of it looking up, licking her thumb and pressing it to a little yellowing gash on the swell of her calf there below her knee. “You’re,” says Jo, “you’re okay.”

“It’s just a cut, Jo,” says Ysabel, her other arm up to cover her breasts.

“You cut yourself,” says Jo, still in the doorway, staring, “I’m here, and you cut yourself, and,” but Ysabel’s started laughing. “Oh, Jo, poor Jo,” she says, throwing back her head, her heavy damp black curls plopping against the water. “No no no. This is not a battlefield, sweet Gallowglas.”

Jo sighs. “We, uh. Were sort of fighting.”

Ysabel lifts her thumb slick with something thick and milky to her lips and licks it clean. “You thought I was done for. Gone down to dust. And you came running.” She presses her thumb back against the slowly reddening cut. “You do care.”

“I’m gonna,” says Jo, stepping out of the doorway, into the main room. “I’ll take the laundry down. Set it up.” Rustle of cloth, jangle of keys. “Go to the fucking Safeway and put them in the dryer when I get back.” She’s back in the doorway now, in her careworn jacket, army-surplus green, the canvas sack slung over her shoulder. “You stay put, heal, get clean, whatever the fuck, just don’t leave the apartment.”

“You’re leaving me alone.”

“Shit’s gotta get done,” says Jo. “It’ll only take an hour or so. And you aren’t going anywhere. And you can always call for Roland if you need to, right?”

Ysabel’s folded her arms on the rim of the tub, leaning her chin on her crossed wrists. “You don’t have anything of mine in that bag, do you.”

“I am not sorting your laundry, Ysabel,” says Jo. “More’n half of it’s dry-clean only anyway.”

“Could you at least wash some of my underwear?”

Jo snorts. “I’ll buy you some Woolite. You can slosh ’em around with you the next time you take a bath.” She jerks open the door to the apartment and slams it shut behind her.

Ysabel reaches down for the cigarette, looks at what’s left of it there between her fingers, then stubs it out on the saucer. She climbs out of the tub and heads dripping over to the bathroom doorway, standing there, staring at the door to the apartment.

Then she walks back to the tub, scooping up the towel that’s draped over the back of the toilet. Patting her face, her chest, drying her hands, she crouches by the tub and opens the pink and white My Little Pony lunchbox. There among the jumbled muddle of bottles of nail polish and lipsticks pots of scrubs is a small glass jar, half-filled with a viscous, milky fluid, frothed with tiny bubbles at the top, touched with just a hint of warm yellow gold.

Table of Contents

Sinister (But She was Happy)” written by Robyn Hitchcock, ©1996 August 23rd Music. “Falling is Like This” written by Ani DiFranco, ©1994 Righteous Babe Records. “The World and I” written by Laura (Riding) Jackson, ©1938.

On her back on the bed in the dark – Getting Ready – Speaking Precisely – Twenty-eight thirty –

On her back on the bed in the dark her pale hair still in its thick rope of a ponytail draped over one shoulder soaks up what little light it can. Her knees drawn up together tipped over to one side, her little black dress rucked up about her hips, her feet bare. Her eyes closed. It’s a round room with casement windows all around cranked open to the sound of rain. Cardboard boxes full of clothes stacked here and there, and more clothing strewn about the bare wood floor. The table by the bedside’s a scrolled marble top balanced on a single fluted pedestal leg. A little blue glass reading lamp, dark, an alarm clock, a flimsy balloon of a wineglass with a small dark puddle at its bottom. A paperback book turned over, splayed open, says The Wounded Sky on its spine. She opens her eyes.

He’s standing in the doorway, the only flat wall in the room, silhouetted by the dim light in the stairwell. His head a great dark mass, his hair in dreadlocks that hang down past his shoulders. “You’re in a mood,” he says.

“Go away,” she says, closing her eyes again.

“Tell me,” he says, “this isn’t what it looks like.”

After a moment she reaches for the switch on the cord of the blue glass lamp and flicks it on. “What does it look like?” she says, sitting up a little, picking up the wineglass.

“Like you’ve suffered some apocalypse of the heart, sister dear.” His eyes are bright, his smile is gentle. “Like you’ve lost your one true love, who’s never to return.” He leans in the doorway, arms folded. His shirt’s a pale pink silk, open at the throat. “Tell me you haven’t gone and screwed everything up.”

“You,” she says, and then she downs what’s left in the glass. “Of course you knew. How did you find out?”

“About the sweet moments you’ve stolen with our absent King’s Bride-to-be? Sister love, who do you think sent her up to find you at Robin’s Midsummer’s party?” He comes into the room, stepping from the dim light of the stairwell to the dim light thrown by the blue glass lamp. “That first fumbling kiss is a memory I shall treasure till the end of days.”

“We were found out,” she says, as she takes great care in putting the glass back on the table next to the book. “Perhaps you heard? The Dagger struck at me, with a Gallowglas on the field.”

“Because of that? I’d heard he just went mad, and’s been exiled for it.” He sits on the bed beside her, his hands in his lap. “Unfortunate you were there when he snapped, and thanks to grace and luck and running shoes the Chariot was there in time.”

“The Chariot, who as much as threatened me with banishment, if I so much as spoke with her again.”

“And it’s him says who’s to be denied the bread and salt and oil, these days? I hadn’t known.”

“He knows, brother. He saw us, together. The Dagger knew. The Duke knows.” She takes a wobbly breath. “The Gallowglas…”

“Ah,” he says, his hand on her knee. “Sister mine, a secret everyone knows but none dare speak of is still a secret kept. The Princess will be Queen soon, and were you still her paramour – well. There’s power to be had, in forcing others to speak around a thing like that.”

Eyes closing, she shakes her head. “No, brother dearest. The tower’s ruined. It won’t help.” She lifts his hand from her thigh. He jerks it from her grasp, looks away from her, out an open window at the rainy night. “It’s cold in here,” he says. He stands and cranks a window shut, moves over to the next. “You should have a care,” he says, his back to her. “Remember, an axe is useless without its handle.” But her breathing’s settled into sleep.

Wrapped in a Spongebob Squarepants towel Ysabel crouches by the futon fingers hovering over the buttons on the boom box, stabbing suddenly at the one that says Eject. The tape drawer pops open. She pulls out the cassette and tosses it to one side, then clatters through a shoebox full of tapes, pulling out a smokey clear one that says The Weasley Variations in tidy white-inked letters. She drops it in the drawer, snaps the drawer shut, presses the button that says Play. Thundering drums and a squalling guitar and a man singing somewhere under it all they hit you at school, they hate you if you’re, and “Shit!” says Ysabel, slapping the button that says Stop. Her fingers hover again until she finds Rewind and holds it down until the tape stops. She presses Play. A jangling guitar’s followed by drums, then bass, then a man’s voice declaiming there are no angels left in America anymore. They left after the Second World War, heading west. Ysabel stands and still wrapped in the towel half-dances over to the glass-topped café table, grabs the empty pizza box and the tall green glass vase, stuffs the pizza box in the garbage can in the little hallway kitchen, sets the vase in the sink. “They kept heading west, to who knows where,” she sings along with the tape, dancing into the bathroom.

Wrapped in the Spongebob Squarepants towel Ysabel’s standing by the glass-topped café table looking it over, a box of matches rattling in her hand. Three lit candles, one tall and white and skinny, one short and red, its wall of crinkled wax collapsed to one side, one in a glass chimney covered with praying hands and a bleeding heart wrapped in thorns and the faces of saints. Before them the small glass jar half-filled with something milky. Thickly fuzzed guitars seep from the boom box, and someone’s singing when you clean out the hive, does it make you want to cry? Are you still being followed by the teenage FBI? Ysabel’s in the kitchen, dropping the matches on the counter, pulling a round yellow bowl out of a cabinet. She sets the bowl on the table by the jar, steps back, head cocked. Shakes her head. Takes the bowl away, comes back with a wine glass. Sets it on the table by the jar. “No,” she says, taking the glass away. She comes back with the bowl. Sets it down. Picks it up again. “Shit,” she says.

The Spongebob Squarepants towel wrapped about her waist Ysabel’s peering at herself in the bathroom mirror, smiling, frowning, wiggling her eyebrows. Music’s drawling in the other room, a dark voice chanting the lower the sun, the longer the shadows become. She pulls a dark red lipstick from the My Little Pony lunchbox and paints her lips, smoothing a corner of her mouth with a pinkie nail, then suddenly daubing one nipple, then the other. She leans back wet hair heavy on her shoulders, looking herself over. Her grin slides into a scowl. She throws the lipstick into the sink, jabs her fingers into a jar of Vaseline, smears the color from her lips. “Fuck,” she says, reaching for the toilet paper.

Ysabel naked sits on the carpet her back to the bulky blond wood armoire, her hair tied back in a simple tail, her head in her hands. The boom box is silent. The candles still burn on the table. She leans to one side and pulls a shimmering white slip from the laundry spilling out of the drawers of the armoire, turing it over in her hands, fingers worrying at a faint ivory stain, a smudge of something red at the neck. “Dammit, Jo,” she says, dropping it on the crumpled cloud of frothy lace beside her. “Would it have killed you.” She finds a pair of grey yoga pants and sniffs them, her face souring, shakes them out, kicks one foot into them and then the other.

The laundry room is brightly lit and steeped in the sussural static of tumbling soaking churning clothes, three dryers on the back wall, one set to spinning, five washers in a line, two with their lids up. Ysabel in grey yoga pants and her leopard-print tank top, her armload of shimmery satin and frothy lace, stands before one of the open washers, running a finger along the text printed on the underside of the lid. “Need some, uh, help?” says the man standing in the doorway.

“Which of these is the dry cleaner?” says Ysabel, without looking up from the lid.

“There, ah, none of them,” he says, frowning. He wears a neat reddish beard and a navy blue hoodie that says Beloit College. “You’d have to go to Bee’s, I think they’re the closest.”

“How long does it take to dry-clean something?” says Ysabel, looking up at him.

“I think,” he says, “they’ve got same-day service, but, you know, they’re not open right now, can I help you? With anything? Do you have any, other, laundry in here? I’m gonna have to lock this up in about an hour.”

“I think Jo’s got her stuff in the washers here, but she’ll be along soon to do whatever needs to be done to it.”

“Jo. You’re staying with Jo? In four-oh-seven?”

“Yes,” says Ysabel.

“Could I, talk to you? Just for a minute. About Jo. I mean, it’s irregular, yes, you wouldn’t have to answer my questions, if you didn’t want to, but I’m trying to help your – ”

“Who are you, exactly?” says Ysabel.

“Oh! Tim. Tim Carroll. I help manage the building, do some counseling, for our residents – ”


“A lot of our folks are on assistance of one sort or another, we help them navigate the paperwork, can we go to the office? It’s a little more, ah, private – ”

“These are private questions?” says Ysabel, stepping around the line of washers.

“Well, it’s a little more discreet? Than the laundry room?”

It’s a small office, tucked behind the front desk up by the racks of mailboxes in the lobby. Tim squeezes between the desk and the wall and drops into a swivel chair, careful of the teetering stack of bankers boxes in the corner. “Go ahead,” he says, gesturing, “take a seat, just close the door first, it’s harder if you do it the other way around.” He’s opening a drawer as she pushes the other chair in the room to one side to make room for the door to swing shut, and he looks up from the yellow legal pad he’s pulled out to see her pushing the chair back to make room to sit, and his eyes fix on the crystal flashing from the gold pin piercing her navel. “Your questions?” says Ysabel, sitting down, draping her armload of lace and satin over her lap.

“How long, ah, have you known Jo?” he says, looking up to her sidelong smile.

“I don’t know, exactly,” says Ysabel.

“Well how long have you been staying with her?”

“I couldn’t precisely say,” says Ysabel.

“Maybe a guess? Did you know her in school? Has it been years? Months? Weeks?”

“What time is it?” says Ysabel, sighing.

“Quarter past?” says Tim. “Eleven?”

“Then I have known Jo Maguire for thirty-three days, one hour, fifteen minutes. Thereabouts.”

He picks up a pen, puts it back down again. “Okay – ”

“I can’t be more exact.”

“That’s, okay.” He leans back in his chair with a grinding squeak. “Could you maybe, guess then, how long it is you’ve been staying with her, I mean, you are staying with her, right?”

She shrugs. “Half a day less?”

He sits up again. “Ah.”


“Where were you, staying before?”

She waits until he’s looking her in the eye again. “With my family. Here in town.”

“Did you, run? Away?”

“You haven’t even asked my name, Mr. Tim Carroll.”

“It’s not, I don’t need to know that, you’re not one of our residents. Not really. This is about Jo.”

“It’s all been about me, so far. Not ‘run,’ no. I’d say it’s more like I was pushed.”

“Because of Jo?”

Her smile widens. “Not in the way you’re thinking.”

He’s looking down at the empty pad again, fiddling with the pen he hasn’t uncapped. “And, ah, you’re employed?”

“I work with Jo, yes.”

“You help with, the rent? Groceries? Like that?”

“I am apparently paying my way,” says Ysabel.

“Ah,” says Tim.

“That’s the second time you’ve uttered that terribly freighted syllable, Mr. Tim Carroll.”

“Jo,” he says, tapping the pen against the pad, “receives a voucher, from the Housing Authority, to assist her with rent, she was very lucky to get it. But one of the conditions of the voucher is, she’s to report any change in the size of her household, that would be you, to the Housing Authority, in writing. And one of the conditions of the voucher is, she’s to report any change in her household’s, income, in writing. To the Housing Authority.”

“And we need to write a letter?” says Ysabel. “You’ve got the pad already. That’s so kind of you.”

“It’s not, ah, it’s been over a month. There’s nothing to be done now, they’ll review the case, but I’m afraid Jo’s going to lose her voucher.”

“Because you think she doesn’t need it? Because I’ve changed her situation?”

“You’ll have to leave regardless. She was also supposed to inform us, that she had someone living with her. Which is grounds for eviction.”

Ysabel gathers up the froth of lace and the shimmering slip from her lap with a rustle and lays them on the pile of papers by her chair. “You weren’t entirely honest with me, Mr. Tim Carroll.”

“I, it’s not like I – ”

“You had an ulterior motive that cut against our best interests. Had I know that, I would have declined to answer your questions.”

“I have a responsibility – ”

“Yes, to your residents, to, what was it you said? Help them navigate these rules and regulations?” She leans forward, her elbows on the desk, her hands lightly on the legal pad. “It’s a very,” he’s saying, “the rules,” as she says “Tell me something.”

“They’re very strict,” he says.

“What was the first thing you thought when you saw me in the laundry room tonight? The first thought that went through your head? Was it, I’d better ask her my questions while I’ve got the chance? Was it gosh I hope she smiles at me?” She sits back in her chair. “Was it, I wonder if she’s wearing any underwear?” Her flip-flops flap to the floor. She kicks her bare feet up to rest on the edge of the desk. An anklet golden shining, a silvery gold-tinged ring about a middle toe. “Why don’t you take off that sweatshirt, Tim?” Her toenails painted gold and sparkling under a glossy shell.

“This is improper,” he says, the bottom of his hoodie bunched in his hands.

“You knew that from the start,” she says, hooking her thumbs in the waistband of her yoga pants, pushing them over her hips and down her legs. Dropping them on the frothy pile of lace. “Do you think I’m beautiful?”

And he nods, slowly.

“Then please take off your shirt.” By the time he’s struggled out of the hoodie she’s skinned off her tank top. He’s wearing a brown T-shirt that says Chewie is my Co-pilot. She’s stretching, her arms up, undoing the tie about her fall of thick black curls. “Now,” she says, standing. “Let’s think a moment.” Sitting on the edge of the desk her back to him, pushing her chair back against the door with a foot. “What can be done?” She spins on the desk scooting forward a little and spreading her legs to rest her feet on either arm of his chair. His mouth open a little eyes wide staring at the crystal flashing from the gold pin piercing her navel. “Jo is my very good friend,” she says, and then she takes his head in her hands. “She takes good care of me, and I will do no less for her.” She bends to kiss the top of his head. “So how do we keep these terrible things from happening?”

“I don’t,” he says, and she pulls him to her, resting his head against her breast. “Don’t say ‘don’t’,” she says, softly, her lips against his ear. “Say ‘can’, Tim. Say ‘will’.”

Jo sets the shopping baskets she’s carrying in either hand on the floor before the shelves of canned beans. She pulls down a couple with blue labels that say Black Beans. Eighty-nine cents says the price tag. “Buck eighty,” she says to herself, putting a can in either basket. “Plus twenty-six fifty, twenty-seven, twenty-eight uh, thirty.” She pulls a grubby little white pad from a pocket of her army-green surplus jacket, fishes up a grease pencil from another pocket, crosses something off on the pad. “Twenty-eight thirty,” she says again. “Dairy.” She picks up the shopping baskets each maybe half full, a couple of onions in one, a couple of potatoes in the other, a box of rice balancing a jar of coffee. She heads up the empty aisle toward the front of the store. Music’s floating down from the unseen speakers up among the ducts and struts, a lazy, loping beat, drink this to put out the flame, drink this, it tastes like vanilla. Aside from the clerk at the lone lit-up checkstand the only person at this end of the store is a woman with long black hair and a loose blue skirt, looking over the frozen pizzas at the end of one of the aisles. Jo heads over toward the dairy display. “Fucking Woolite,” she says to herself, stopping, setting the baskets down. Pulling out the pad and pencil to make another note.

“Gallowglas,” comes a voice behind her.

Jo looks over her shoulder.

It’s Orlando standing by the freezer full of pizzas in his blue sarong, his white half-unbuttoned dress shirt, his long black hair draped over one shoulder. “Where’s the Princess, Gallowglas?” he says, and though his voice is soft it carries.

“Oh, fuck me,” says Jo, looking past him. The clerk’s gone from the one lit-up checkstand. The florist counter’s dark, and the deli counter too, and there’s no one, no one in sight at all, not even at the tables by the Starbucks counter.

“You’re alone here?” he’s saying. He puts the box of five-cheese pizza back on the freezer shelf. “How fortuitous. So am I.” His hand a loose fist out to his side turning a curl of light in the air between them as he draws his arm back to himself, and it’s gone so suddenly still, no more bleeps from the registers, no squeak of a shopping cart’s wheels from the next aisle over, even the compressor in the freezer’s rattled to a stop, and the music’s gone away. “Go on,” says Orlando, settling the hilt of his Japanese sword in both hands. “Where’s yours?”

“Fucking fuck me hell,” says Jo.

Table of Contents

The Wounded Sky written by Diane Duane, ©1983 Paramount Pictures. “Working Class Hero” written by John Lennon, copyright holder unknown. “Angels” written by David Byrne, ©1994 Moldy Fig Music. “Teenage FBI” written by Robert Pollard, copyright holder unknown. “The Lower the Sun” written by Tom Vek, ©2005. “Uncle Ray” written by Stuart Davis, copyright holder unknown.

the Refrigerator Light – “Draw your sword” – One Long Swallow – Something’s Up –

The refrigerator light as he opens the door shines dimly on her there in the saggy blue chair in the corner, curled up in a long pink T-shirt, her book in one hand, a finger keeping her place, the flimsy balloon of a wineglass in the other. “Hart and hive, girl,” he growls. “You spooked me.”

“Agravante woke me,” says Marfisa. “I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

“Sleep can’t stand me,” he says, closing the refrigerator. He’s leaning most of his weight on a black-handled blue metal four-legged cane. “Been at each other’s throat for years.” He shuffle-clomps over to the counter, reaching for a light switch. Halogen spots under the upper cabinets flash to life. “Can’t remember who started it. But a lovely girl like you? How could sleep resist your charms?” His dressing gown’s a deep rich blue, unbelted over pale blue and pink checked pyjamas.

“There’s plenty enough who can,” she says, lifting the wineglass as if to sip from it, but turning instead to set it on the narrow kitchen desk. “Why should sleep be any different?”

“Troubles of the loins, is it?”

“Of the heart, Grandfather. Please.”

“Ah. Love.” He snorts. “Something we didn’t have in our day. Never saw the use of it. Now beauty? Oh!” Both hands on his cane he tips his head back wizened face lit up by a beatific smile, ivory hair a wild crown. “Why once I razed the towers of Heigh Pareval and salted the foundations of her walls because her Queen thought to keep her three most beautiful boys from the eyes of the world.” His shaggy brows come together and his smile droops, his eyes look away as his bobbing head begins to shake from side to side. “Or was that your grandmother, rest her teeth? I get confused.”

“You always told us it was Grandmother went a-Viking,” says Marfisa.

“So she did. So she did. And I stayed home to bake the bread.”

“Didn’t you love her, Grandfather?”

“I was bound to her, girl. Ties of toradh. Great weighty chains of obligations first forged when the world was young. And hound and hawk I wanted her, yes, I did, still do. I close my eyes,” and he does so, “and I can see her as I saw her first, the day we met, coming out of the kitchen in my flour-dusted apron, that greatsword in her hands – ” He opens his eyes. “The ache in my bones,” he says. “The ice in my belly. The sight of her like poetry, standing my hair on end.” He pounds his cane against the floor. “Love had nothing to do with it. Leads to sitting around in the dark waiting for someone else to do what needs doing, or so it would seem.” She smiles at that, a little. “Should have bound you over to someone long ago, girl. Removed any uncertainty and doubt. Let you get on with the important things.”

“It would have weakened our position. Agravante’s said so.”

His bobbing head’s shaking again. “There’s not world enough, nor time, for love. Now. I’m going to tell you a secret.” He leans over his cane at her, but he’s smiling at the refrigerator. “There’s a corner of a sheet cake in there. Big blue flowers. I’ll cut you off a slice.”

“Thank you, Grandfather,” says Marfisa.

“It’s terrible,” he says with great delight. “The frosting’s nothing but sugar and some awful chemical color cooked up in a lab.”

Jo between her baskets of groceries both hands held up away from herself eyes locked on Orlando there by the freezer full of pizzas his sword in his hands. Neither of them’s taken a step. Two whole aisles between them. “If I don’t,” says Jo, “then what, I automatically lose? Forfeit or something? All my offices become yours, is that it?”

“You mistake the situation, girl,” says Orlando. “This is no duel. This is murder.”

Jo takes a step or two back. He doesn’t take a step forward. “Either,” she starts to say, and swallows, and tries again, “either way you get the Princess, right?”

“This isn’t about her.” He resettles his grip on the hilt of his sword. “Tell me something, girl, before I kill you, and tell me true.” He takes a step, just one. “Do you love him?”

“I,” says Jo, as she starts to frown, to shake her head, and taking another step back she carefully says “I already answered that question.”

“Not to me you haven’t,” says Orlando.

“Yes!” cries Jo, her voice ringing in the empty supermarket. “Yes! I love him! I miss him! I’m,” and she’s interrupted by a sudden hitching sob of a breath, “I’m very fucking sorry. Like I already. Fucking. Said. What do I get, this time? My groceries? That it?”

“Do you pity him?” says Orlando, the hilt of his sword rattling in his hands.

“What?” says Jo.

“Do you pity him? Because of his leg?”

“His leg? I don’t – ”

“His leg! That you broke on the hunt so that now he must limp like a beaten dog.” Two steps, his arms going up and back, the blade like a beam over his head. “Do you pity him? Is that why you love him?”

“I’m not talking about the Duke,” says Jo, her voice gone quiet.

“I am.”

“I don’t love the Duke,” says Jo.

“Liar.” He brings the blade down before him pointing with the slight curve of it toward the tip. “Do not think to talk your way out of this.”

“Why should I,” she says. “One cut, and you’re done for.”

“So here we are,” he says. “Draw your sword.”

“Yeah,” says Jo. “About that.” Glancing over her shoulder. The stairs behind her, the switchback of the access ramp, the doors outside filled with blank black night.

“You won’t make it, girl,” says Orlando.

“Probably not,” says Jo, and she starts running. To the side. Down the aisle. Toward the back of the store.

Orlando bare feet padding swiftly blade swung up above his head past the empty aisle the abandoned baskets of groceries around the corner to see Jo halfway down its length before the shelves turning her arm whipping up and out and again, blue cans flying at him one two. He sidesteps ducks head canted and a third’s spinning through the air right at him. He brings his blade down in a short swift chop. Two halves of the can spinning away to either side, top and bottom clattering against shelves falling a spill of black beans spattering the floor. Jo’s running away down the aisle turning at the end of it.

Backpedalling Orlando his white shirt splashed with purple at the front of the supermarket again past the abandoned baskets of groceries peering down the next aisle over. No sign of Jo. He stands unmoving eyes closed head tipped down, listening, his blade in both hands held before him. Away down the aisles a squeak, a clank. A pat, pat of footsteps, slow and careful. He opens his eyes, looks to one side, the stairs, the access ramp. To the other, the deli counter, the Starbucks counter, more doors blank and black. “You can’t wait me out,” he calls, and then quickly bare feet whispering he’s off down the aisle.

She’s crouched at the end of it climbing to her feet as he comes around the corner and she flings another can at him and he swings a spray of tomatoes over his head can-top and bottom clanging away and as she turns to run back up the aisle she throws one more can from the clutch in her arm and he twists his followthrough torquing his blade to slice sideways at it. It’s a longer can than the others, skinnier, wobbling as it spins at him, a yellow plastic cap on one end.

There’s a loud whoomp and a clattering crash of falling cans and jars and maybe shelves and a bellow of rage and pain. Jo’s up the next aisle over, looking back, setting the cans she’s carrying back on the shelf, another blue can of beans, a red can of tomatoes, and another longer, skinnier can, topped by a yellow plastic cap. Easy Off Oven Cleaner, says the label. Heavy Duty. Contents under pressure. “Question number two,” she mutters to herself. “What’s around you, asshole.” Music’s coming from unseen speakers up among the struts and ducts, Ray-hey, ey, Uncle Ray! Scanner’s bleeping at the checkstand, security guard’s looking about as she bursts from the aisle, running along the front of the store toward the stairs. “Hey!” he hollers.

“He’s got a sword!” yells Jo. “Something exploded!”

“Shit,” says the guard, looking down the aisle, hand going to the club at his hip, looking back toward her, but she’s already up the stairs and through the doors.

Laughing she opens the door to the apartment. “Jo?” she calls, standing there in the little hallway kitchen. She’s holding a manila envelope in one hand. “Jo!” Out in the main room on the glass-topped café table three candles unlit. Before them the small glass jar, half-filled. She plants a kiss on the envelope and drops it on the kitchen counter.

In the bathroom water’s filling the sink. She’s standing before the mirror looking herself in the eye. She shuts off the faucet, dips her hands in the water, splashes her face, wincing. Runs wet hands through her hair, pulling it back, tight against her skull. Her lips unpainted a thin straight line. Her eyes blink once. She lets go of her hair and scoops up more water, splashing her face again, gasping, then grabs the hem of her tank top and lifts it over her head. She carefully plucks the grip from the gold pin piercing her navel and sets it crystal glimmering on the edge of the sink. She peels off her yoga pants and leaves them on the floor by the toilet.

She doesn’t turn on the boom box.

She relights the candles, puts the matches back on the kitchen counter, shuts off the light in the main room. Stands before the table head bowed a moment in the flickering warm light. “All right then,” she says, opening her eyes. She take up the jar and unscrews its cap, setting it on the table, lifting the jar to her nose. Her face settles into such a contented sigh. “Oh,” she breathes, and “wow.” She lifts the jar and nods to the windows before her filled with the lights of the city at night, then turns to her right, lifting the jar and nodding to the wall over the futon, its collage of post cards and scraps of paper, scribbled post-it notes and pages ripped from magazines. She turns to face the wall behind her, lifting the jar and nodding to the blond wood armoire, the clothing littering the floor, then turns to her left, lifting the jar and nodding to the bathroom door and the little hallway kitchen and the door to the hallway beyond. “What’s freely given,” she says, quietly but clearly, “I freely give. The price of it’s too dear if licked from thorns.” And lifting the jar to her lips she pours the milky fluid down her throat in one long swallow.

She sways, lips shining –

Slowly turning, she puts the jar back on the table –

A loud clink. Lifting her hand too rapidly away in surprise –

“Whoa,” she says with half a laugh, rolling over to sit up among the tangled blankets on the futon.

Her hand to her chest thumb stroking the notch in her clavicle. She wipes her mouth clean with a finger and one hand on the pillows. She licks her fingertip. Another half laugh, shaking her head, rolling over to sit up among the tangled blankets on the futon. She lifts one leg into the air toes curling and “Oh” she says her hand suddenly on her belly her belly rippling like water under a sudden gust of wind.

Climbing to her feet she stumbles over the black spear-haft on the floor stretching beneath the table arms out to catch herself she rolls over with a half laugh in the tangled blankets on the futon groaning, clutching her stomach shaking like sand after heavy footsteps.

“Whoa,” she says, her laugh a wetly hacking bubbling cough. Letting go of herself slowly, hands on the edge of the futon now. “First step’s a doozy.” She pushes forward to climb to her feet when her belly roils like a sack full of snakes and her groan’s through gritted teeth. Rolling over in the tangled blankets on the futon on her hands and knees as something yellow and wet spurts from her mouth strings of it clinging to her lips. “Oh no” she says in a small weak voice, clutching her clenching gut until bucking suddenly she heaves up a gout of vomit white and wet and tinged with yellow and red, slickly shining in the candlelight slopping over the blankets, another wash of it spattering the wall with clusters of tiny pearly curds. She lies there on her side her breath gone quick and shallow. “Help,” she says so quiet, and then she folds over herself like a kick and tumbles from the futon to the floor.

“This is all terribly basic and very well as far as it goes,” says Mr. Charlock, digging with chopsticks for a piece of pork. “Divinational time is orthogonal to pseudo-time, sure.” Beside him Mr. Keightlinger’s chewing a bite of egg-salad sandwich, his elbows up on the steering wheel. “What they don’t seem to appreciate, thinking of the apex of what they call vertical time as some synchronous slice of the godhead,” he takes a pull from a bottle of soda and sticks it back between his knees, “anyway, thing they don’t seem to understand is, you’ve made it, you’re swanning about where everything just is in perfect harmony and synchronous bliss, well great, but you still haven’t solved the fucking problem of nirvana, that one eternal unanswerable question: what happens next?”

“Nothing,” says Mr. Keightlinger, thoughtfully plucking a shred of greasy lettuce from his beard.

“Nothing! Nothing fucking happens there! Because it’s all happy and perfect and as it should be and you don’t want anything and you don’t need anything, because bliss is instantaneously everywhere, so nothing ever changes. Nothing happens. You are. Effectively. Dead. There’s a reason they call it heavenly.” Mr. Charlock pulls a half-eaten egg roll from a paper sack. “And I don’t know about you, but dead is the last thing I want.”

“I would have to agree,” says Mr. Keightlinger, popping a potato chip into his mouth.

Mr. Charlock taps his temple with the chopsticks. “Fuck enlightenment. I like having fallen from stuffy old perfect grace, being locked up in this box of bone, quote unquote trapped in this ugly old world where I want things and need things and get to fucking do things. Where things change. You know there’s a reason Western civilization took over the fucking world. We harnessed that shit. We gotta see what happens next.”

“Lights out,” says Mr. Keightlinger, setting what’s left of his sandwich on the dashboard.

“Really?” says Mr. Charlock, scrunching down to peer up through the windshield at a fourth-floor window of the building opposite. “I dunno. Looks like she’s got candles going in there. She got something on the side with somebody in the building?”

“You’d know.”

“Christ, don’t remind me. Just tell me, again, why we aren’t up there snatching her right the hell now.”

“Observe,” says Mr. Keightlinger, scooping the last bits of chip from the bag. “Do not engage.”

“He wants the Princess in December, why’s he hire us in June? The hell? She is up there, alone, utterly and completely naked, not even a fucking dreamcatcher on the wall, her bodyguard stormed off who the hell knows where, I bet she hasn’t even locked the goddamn door. Ripe and ready and this could be over in five minutes none the wiser, but we gotta sit on our tuches and observe and not fucking engage.” Mr. Charlock sets his carton on the dashboard chopsticks clattering. “Something’s up. Can’t you feel it?” He lifts his feet up to the seat squatting up and twisting over the back of it. “Whole tight thing, back of your neck?”

“Where are you going?” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“To check it out,” says Mr. Charlock, climbing into the back seat.

“Mr. Charlock,” says Mr. Keightlinger, leaning abruptly to avoid one of Mr. Charlock’s kicking black wingtips.

“Keep your tie knotted,” says Mr. Charlock, lying down across the seat. “I ain’t engaging. Just observing more closely. Fuck tha thirteen-twenty, right? Twelve-sixty forever.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“What’s endearing is you think I do,” says Mr. Charlock, closing his eyes. “Wakka-ding-hoy.” He folds his hands on his chest.

Mr. Keightlinger picks up the soda bottle Mr. Charlock left on the floorboard. He takes a swig. Rubs the back of his neck. “Tight?” he says. “You feel anything? Whoops. Heads up.” He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a pair of classic black sunglasses. The left lens covered with spidery words written in white ink. He puts them on. Outside across the street in the rain Jo’s running past, stumbling to a stop at the doors to the lobby of the building holding onto the handle, throwing back her head to whoop with delight as she hauls the door open. Mr. Keightlinger purses his lips, leaning down a little, looking up through the sunglasses from Jo crossing the glass-walled lobby toward the elevator along the building above. He whistles softly. “Mr. Charlock?” He leans back. “Mr. Charlock.” Mr. Charlock moans. “Wake up, Mr. Charlock,” says Mr. Keightlinger. Mr. Charlock’s hands have come unclasped and wave about before his face. His eyes still closed. “Whole building’s ringing,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “You’d best come back.”

Mr. Charlock begins to scream. Mr. Keightlinger opens his door with a sharp popping squonk as Mr. Charlock arches his back heels drumming as Mr. Keightlinger climbs out of the car and leans his seat forward to shove his way through grabbing Mr. Charlock by the shoulders. Mr. Charlock’s voice scraping out of his throat as Mr. Keightlinger swings his big arm in that narrow space to slap him, hard, and again. The scream cuts off.

“You all here?” says Mr. Keightlinger, rain plopping on his broad black-suited back.

“Anybody,” says Mr. Charlock, and he coughs, “this side of the river the least bit sensitive’s gonna have such the headache tomorrow.” His hands up to either side of his face he brings them down staring at the darkness spotting his fingertips. “Wow,” he says. “I never bled from my ears before.”

Table of Contents

Uncle Ray” written by Stuart Davis, copyright holder unknown.

Laughing she Opens the Door – Not even breathing – Something Sharp – “Hold out your hand” –

Laughing she opens the door to the apartment. “Ysabel?” she calls, standing there in the little hallway kitchen. Out in the main room three candles still burn on the glass-topped café table. Before them a small glass jar, uncapped, empty, sides filmed with milky residue. “You wanted a little atmosphere?” Jo flicks the light switch. The shoulders of her jacket and her short brown hair are dark with rain. Her face screws up. “Jesus, the smell,” she says. On the carpet bare feet bare legs stretching along around the corner Jo’s suddenly darting forward to see Ysabel naked on the floor by the futon head to one side eyes open mouth slack black curls smeared and wet. Jo hands over her mouth eyes wide. “Ysabel?” Her voice gone quiet, and then, coming back, “Oh fuck oh fuck. Ysabel. What have you done? What,” kneeling by Ysabel’s side hand over Ysabel’s throat under her matted plastered hair, “did you take,” reaching instead for her wrist, the arm flung to one side over the futon, stopping short and coming up to her own face, reaching down again to peel the hair from Ysabel’s throat and breast, her thumb then fingers feeling for a pulse just below the corner of Ysabel’s jaw when Ysabel’s mouth sucks down a thinly ragged breath. Jo shrieks her hand jerking back up in the air. That breath escapes in a gentle sigh and is followed by another, deeper, bubbling in the pit of it. “Fuck,” Jo’s saying, “Jesus fuck,” almost a sob, “what did you do what did you do.” Reaching for Ysabel’s flung-aside arm, pulling it close, looking to the crooks of her elbows. “What did you do.” Jo stands, looking about the room. By the candles on the table the jar still filmed with a milky residue.

She snatches it up and holds it to the light, brings it to her nose for a sniff. A slime of vomit clings to her hand, and she sniffs that, her face screwing up again. “The fuck is this stuff? What did you do?”

Another ragged breath Ysabel’s back arching one arm reaching up her hand a claw, her other arm clutching her belly eyes wild red-rimmed looking for Jo. “Oh fuck,” says Jo, dropping to her knees again by Ysabel as Ysabel’s arm reaching for Jo grabbing at Jo’s arm Jo’s hands hanging useless, “I don’t know,” and then finally Jo reaches out and pulls Ysabel to her, “what’s happening,” Ysabel’s breath now coming in short and shallow pants, “Ysabel, say something, please,” Ysabel’s head settling on Jo’s shoulder the claws of her hands relaxing one loosing its grip on Jo’s shoulder falling away slowly slumping the arm to the floor as she sags in Jo’s embrace. “Ysabel. Ysabel, please. Breathe goddammit. Breathe. Breathe!” Jo leans back. Ysabel’s head slumps forward and Jo catches her chin lifting up and back Ysabel’s eyes closed now her jaw slack once more. “Ysabel!” Jo shakes her. Ysabel’s head flopping back and forth loosely on her neck. “Oh God Ysabel you stupid. Stupid fucking goddamn Ysabel you stupid, stupid, stupid – ” Jo slaps her. Lifts her head. Slaps her again. “Fuck!” Pulling her close, holding her tightly her head again on her shoulder, “Oh God I don’t know I don’t know.” Rocking back and forth. “I don’t know what to do, Ysabel, I don’t know what to do, I don’t, I don’t.” Slowing. Jo leans back away again, lays Ysabel’s body gently down supporting her shoulders, her head. “Roland,” says Jo. “Roland.” Ysabel laid out on the floor by the futon Jo smoothing her hair back straightening her arms. Ysabel’s belly shivers. “Oh, God,” says Jo, and she does not brush the fluttering skin with her fingers. “Roland,” she says, and she stands.

Jo savagely twists the handle of the window cranking it open leaning against it with her shoulder. “Roland!” she cries. “Roland! Roland!” Leaning out over the faux balcony hands on the flaking white railing. “Roland!” Screaming into the rain. “Woot!” cries someone outside unseen. In the parking lot across the street a big man in a dark suit’s standing next to a black car looking up at her. “Roland,” she says again, her voice faltering. “You useless sonofabitch. Five fucking dollars and you can’t, you can’t fucking hear me when I need you, Roland! Roland!”

A block or two away a car’s honking a screech of tires and coming around the corner there a figure all in white streetlight glinting from green piping flashing from jagged green sunglasses like pieces of broken bottle running across the street under the window and there’s a banging down there and a yell and the sound of breaking glass. Jo steps back from the window knuckling her eyes. She finds the spindly wrought-iron chair by the table and falls into it as footsteps shake the hall outside. He doesn’t knock. The door bangs open and he’s there, past the little hallway kitchen and standing before her in the main room, one hand stripping off his sunglasses, one hand knocking the blue and white headphones from his ears. Not even breathing hard. Rain shining in the white-blond fuzz of his hair.

“She’s naked,” he says.

“She isn’t fucking breathing,” says Jo. “She took something. I don’t know, what is it you people take. It isn’t heroin. She fucking overdosed on something – ” He’s by the table looming over her snatching up the small glass jar, turning it over in his gloved hand, watching the milky residue roll down the sides. “Who gave this to her?” His voice quiet, strained.

“I don’t know. We have to get her help, Roland. I don’t know who to call or where – ”

“Who gave this to her?”

“I don’t know!”

“You must know. She’s your responsibility.”

“Roland, please,” says Jo, still sitting in that spindly chair. “She’s dying.”

He closes that jar in his fist and stoops to pick up the Spongebob Squarepants towel from the floor. He drapes it over Ysabel’s body, then sits on the edge of the futon, dragging his gloved hand through the foul spew puddled among the blankets. He lifts his slimed hand holding something pinched, a pearly curd. He squeezes it until it bursts in a sudden puff of ashy dust that hissing he shakes away, beating his hand against the blankets. He rips the velcro on his glove and peels it off, dropping it in the vomit. “Is this it? The only bed?”

“Nah,” says Jo, “there’s another one in the bathroom. I’m kidding.”

“Then help me strip this one,” he says.

Jo gets up from the chair and sets the pillows to one side and together they bundle the blankets together, the sheets, Jo wadding them into one of the blond wood crates at the foot of the futon. The futon itself is stained, an irregular dull grey patch soaked through the white ticking. “Help me lift her up here,” says Roland.

“That isn’t puke,” says Jo.

“Careful.” Roland takes up Ysabel’s shoulders cradling her head as Jo hooks her hands behind Ysabel’s knees. They lay her on the futon close to the wall, away from the stain. “She’s so heavy,” says Jo. Roland’s resettling the towel over Ysabel’s body. “Who gave her the jar?” he says.

“I can’t suddenly remember something I never knew,” snaps Jo.

“This is important, Jo.” Sitting there at the head of the futon, hands on his knees, one bare, one still gloved.

“So’s this!”

“She’s not in any danger of dying. Not the way you think. Was there anyone at the grocery store today?”

“She’s just gonna wake up, is that it? Nothing but maybe a terrible hangover? Blinding headache? Shivers and shakes and babies on the ceiling? What are we talking about here, Roland?”

“Anyone at all that you recognized, today?”

“What the hell with today?”

“She did it today,” says Roland. “You left her alone, today. At the grocery store.”

“This is not,” says Jo, but Ysabel’s hand lifts a little fingers trembling and her chin tilts mouth opening around a gurgling sip of air. “Hell,” says Jo, when Ysabel’s hand settles palm up now, “if it’s me leaving her alone, then maybe it was somebody at the Queen’s dinner party? Or the siege at the church last week. Or hell maybe it was you gave it to her while I was off hunting the boar with the Duke. Somebody could have dropped it off tonight while I was out getting jumped – ”

“Tonight?” roars Roland.

“Shit’s gotta get done! She wouldn’t get out of the fucking tub! And what the fuck would it matter me leaving her alone? Did I know she wasn’t supposed to get a fucking jar of something? Somebody walks up and hands a jar of something to her and what do I say because did anybody tell me? Jesus, Roland, what do we do?”

He’s looking down at his bare hand picking at the velcro straps of his remaining bicycle glove. “I need a knife,” he says.

“What?” says Jo.

“A carving knife. Steak knife. Something sharp.” She’s looking at him blankly. “I can’t use my sword, Jo. Never mind.” He heads for the little hallway kitchen, opening drawers, rattling through cutlery.

“What are you,” Jo tries to say, and then again, “what are you going to cut.” Staring down at Ysabel’s body, at the towel trembling, rippling over Ysabel’s belly. “Roland? What the fuck are you going to cut?” He’s standing by the glass-topped café table holding the long thin blade of a knife in the flame of the tall white candle. “Jesus Roland,” says Jo getting up from the futon, grabbing his arm, “what are you doing – ”

“If you struggle,” he says, “a cut will destroy her.” He holds the knife up. The blade smoked black, the edge of it glimmering sparking red here and there.

“What are you cutting,” says Jo, not letting go of his arm.

His headphones clack together around his neck as he shifts in Jo’s grasp. “She tried to turn the medhu,” he says, his voice flat. “She failed. It’s gone bad in her and must be cut out.”

Jo lets go of his arm. “Tell me you’re not going to hurt her.”

Roland takes a step toward Ysabel’s body on the futon. “I must,” he says. “Try your best to remember that this is chirurgerie. Not battle.” He kneels beside her, heedless of the stain.

“Wait,” says Jo. “Don’t we need bandages or something? Boiling water? I don’t – ”

“Sit,” says Roland. “Please.”

“Okay,” says Jo, and she sits in the spindly wrought-iron chair. Roland the knife in his gloved hand reaches for the towel with his bare hand and lifts it from Ysabel’s body. The muscles in her stomach bunch and relax, bunch and relax. He leans over her bare hand gingerly just below her breasts on the arch of her ribcage knife point-down in his gloved fist tip of it there by his bare thumb. Jo closes her eyes squeezes them shut then opens them just as Roland punches the tip of the knife through Ysabel’s skin.

Jo gasps knuckles to her mouth. Ysabel’s shoulders jump neck arching and no sound is coming from her open mouth. Roland crouching bare hand shivering drags the knife from her sternum down and down through her navel opening a yellow line that gleams that shines that dims filling with something darkening reddish brownish black that overflows in runnels slow and thick like syrup down her flanks her hips jerking one of her arms flopping and from the back of her throat now a keening grating groan her head tipping over her chest rising around a great sucking draught of air and Ysabel begins to scream.

“Help me.” Roland’s tossed the knife to the floor and is wrapping his arms about Ysabel’s kicking legs. “Her shoulders.” Jo’s up from the chair and kneeling by Ysabel’s head knocking from side to side eyes open as she screams. “Let her cry!” Jo’s hands leap from Ysabel’s face. “Let her cry,” says Roland hoarsely. “Help me turn her. On her side.” Ysabel’s belly clenching at the bottom of her scream a bubble brown and shining slicked with red and yellowed black swelling from the wound as Jo shovels her hands under Ysabel’s back and when they lift her and turn her it bursts spattering the wall the futon Roland’s crisp white track suit hissing and steaming Jo’s jeans her jacket sleeve her face a weight of it slopping from the wound oozing across the futon between them splashing the carpet with great thick plops staining Roland’s spotless white running shoes. “Hold her,” he says, standing. Ysabel’s legs gone limp now. Her scream crumbled into sobs. “Hold her.” Jo awkwardly shifting her hands her grip into a hug Ysabel reaching for Jo’s arms pulling Jo close, “Jo,” she’s saying in among the hiccups, “oh Jo.”

“Shh,” says Jo. “You’re gonna be okay. It’s gonna be okay.” She’s looking over at Roland as she says this, Roland tugging at a zipper on a white nylon pouch. “Okay,” says Jo. “It’s okay.”

“The wound,” says Roland. “Hold it shut. We must close it.” Jo’s staring down at the ruin of Ysabel’s belly edges of the cut hanging slackly gleaming oily in the light and streaked with hints and blots of greens and blues, purples, reds and yellows, the stain on the futon spread before her now a fan of seeping darkness wetly plop of fat drops here and there still falling to the carpet. “I don’t,” says Jo, and then, “there’s nothing,” and then, “there’s nothing there. Is there.” Her hands stained the color of liver. Her jacket cuffs soaked. Ysabel’s wet eyes gently closed.

“This’ll be enough,” says Roland, pulling a plastic baggie from the nylon pouch. “This might be enough.” A thimbleful of gold dust in one corner of it. He looks up at Jo cradling Ysabel in her arms her hands slipping in the dark mess of the wound Ysabel’s eyes closed tightly now biting her lip. “Jo,” he says. “Jo, you’ll need to.” Holding the baggie out to her.

It takes a moment before she looks up at him. She says, “I can’t.”

“There’s not much here. You’ve the keeping of her. It’ll mean more, from your hand – ”

“Roland, I can’t. I’m not, I don’t, I don’t have the – ”

“The what?” His voice rising, no longer ragged. “The honor? The devotion?” His face softens. “Jo,” he says. “Hold out your hand.”

She holds out her hand, reaching across Ysabel’s body. He pours the dust into it.

“Oh,” says Jo. “Oh wow.”

“Quickly,” says Roland.

Jo carefully lowers her hand glowing enough to light up that darkness as she presses it flat against the wound Ysabel hissing rigid and trembling as Jo draws that hand up along the wetly open edges of the wound and where it passes all that’s left behind’s a whitish line of scar. Jo strokes Ysabel’s belly again and even the scar puckers away, the dregs of the stain on Ysabel’s skin dissolving in sparks of color, and when Jo closes her dimming hand in a fist and opens it again no longer glowing at all it’s been scoured clean. Ysabel’s twisting in Jo’s arms laying her head against Jo’s chest. “I’m so,” she’s saying. “Sorry. I never.”

“Shh,” says Jo. Then, “I think she’s asleep.”

“She will for a while,” says Roland. “You’ll want to get her off that bed.”

“Yeah, well,” says Jo, slumped against the wall unmoving, “the smell alone. Christ how am I gonna clean this up.”

“You must burn it all,” says Roland, sitting heavily in the spindly wrought-iron chair. “Nothing but bad luck and nightmares will come of it now.”

“What,” says Jo, “even the carpet? I think, I think they’re gonna have a problem with that.” Laying her head back, eyes closed. Ysabel’s head slipping from her chest to her shoulder. “Could you maybe find an uncursed blanket or something? I don’t wanna disturb her.”

“Oh,” says Roland. “Of course.” Standing and rooting about the scattered laundry, he scoops up the Spongebob Squarepants towel and shakes it out, holds it up, eyeing both sides. He spreads it over them both, Jo on her side, Ysabel asleep in her arms. “There,” he says. “There.” Jo’s closed her eyes.

“You guys gonna buy me a new bedroom set or what?” she says, her voice thick with sleep.

“You must learn to take this more seriously,” says Roland, and Jo snorts, shaking with quiet giggles. Roland straightens, frowning. “You do realize,” she says, when she can, “how funny that is.”

“Yes,” says Roland. “I think I do.” Jo’s quivering giggles redouble. Roland turns and sits heavily in the spindly chair. He fingers the stain on the knee of his crisp white track pants, a purplish brown that fades to yellow at its edges like an old bruise.

When Jo begins to snore lightly, he gets to his feet and heads into the little hallway kitchen and stoops to knock on the cabinet door under the sink. He knocks again. He looks up, straightens and knocks on the cabinet door up above the refrigerator. As he’s doing so he’s looking down at the sink full of dirty dishes. “Oh,” he says, shifting the handle of a frying pan caked with leftover refried beans. “I see.” He looks about the main room, Jo and Ysabel asleep under the thin towel, the appalling stain splattered across the futon and the carpet, the pile of ruined blankets and sheets kicked to one side, the drifts of Ysabel’s dirty laundry here and there about the room. The black spear-haft stretched on the floor under the glass-topped café table. The dead candles. He steps into the room and picks up the knife from where he’d tossed it, then heads back out again, switching off the lights as he goes.

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Awake, she

Awake, she sits upright blankets falling into her lap. One hand to her breast one to her belly, tangled black hair slipping over one shoulder in a matted clump as she holds herself. Something scrapes. Something’s sizzling. Her mouth opens around a word. She tries again: “Jo?” she says.

Jo pops around the corner from the little hallway kitchen, spatula in her hand. “You’re awake,” she says. “Did I wake you? How you doing?” She’s wearing boxers and a loose black tank top.

“Thirsty,” says Ysabel, her voice rough and weak. Jo busies herself in the kitchen with cabinets and the refrigerator as Ysabel leans back closes her eyes pulls the blankets to her chin.

“We only had the two eggs left,” says Jo. Ysabel opens her eyes and takes the glass of water. “I cut ’em with the can of cream of mushroom. Campbelled eggs, which I used to have when I was a kid.” She’s setting plates on the blankets by Ysabel, greyish yellow glops of egg, black-cornered toast. “Only I think the ratio of egg-to-soup needs to be higher. But you can soak the toast in it, which is good because the bread’s pretty stale.” Ysabel’s handing back the glass, empty, tugging the blankets back up to her chin. “You want a shirt?” says Jo.

Ysabel shakes her head. “These are new,” she says. The top blanket’s a woolly plaid in black and red and orange-browns over a maroon thermal blanket.

“They replaced the futon, too,” says Jo, forking up some runny egg. “With a mattress, but whatever. No idea how they did it while we were sleeping on it.” The carpet where she’s sitting’s no longer stained, but bleached almost white in big round spots. “Dishes weren’t done, though. And your clothes are still all over the place.” She scoops some more egg onto her toast, looks at Ysabel. “I went ahead,” she says, “and called us out sick to work. Stomach flu, I said.”

“Jo,” says Ysabel. “What did you do to me?”

“What did we,” says Jo. “We saved you, Ysabel.”

“I don’t know about that.” Ysabel’s slumping, folding about herself.

Jo says, “What the hell was that stuff” as Ysabel’s saying, “I feel, I feel lighter. Empty. Emptier. As if something were missing.” Holding herself tightly under the blankets. “I’m cold.”

“Roland said it turned on you. It went bad. And we had to cut it out of you.”

“What does he know.”

“More than me.”

Ysabel reaches our from under the blankets and takes Jo’s hand. “I never meant,” she says, and she squeezes, lets go, pulls her own back under the blankets. “It’s a mystery.”

“Well, yeah,” says Jo.

“I mean it might have been working. Maybe that’s what has to happen. Every single, every time.” Curled about herself she rests her cheek on her knees. “I don’t know.”

“What are we talking about?” says Jo, her hand on Ysabel’s shoulder.

“What does the Queen do?” Ysabel sits up, Jo’s hand falling away.

“Your mother? I don’t – ”

“Why is she the Queen? Where does the owr come from, Jo?”

“The owr?” Jo frowns. “Roland said a different word. Began with an em.”

“Medhu,” says Ysabel. They sit there a moment, Ysabel on the bed, Jo beside it, eyes locked, plates forgotten.

“So you,” says Jo, “the Queen takes this,” and there’s a knock on the door. “Fuck,” she says. The knock again. “Hang on,” says Jo, getting to her feet.

“Jo,” says Ysabel, “wait.”

“Just a minute,” says Jo, heading into the little hallway kitchen, opening the door to the apartment. Marfisa’s there in black boots and a dark blue trench coat, her hair about her shoulders a loose cloud of curls the color of clotted cream. “Jo Gallowglas,” she says. “I will not come in.”

“Okay,” says Jo.

“Marfisa,” calls Ysabel weakly from the bed.

“I would have you know,” says Marfisa, “that come the Samani, when our Queen with her hand gives you a sword and names you a knight, I will then have you offered grease and ash and sugar that your body might prove the merits of my quarrel: you are a false knight, and in no wise fit to bear blade or office.”

“You’re,” says Jo, “you’re talking about a duel.”

“I would not have anyone say you were surprised. In seventeen days, I will take her from you. Whether you choose to fight or not is of no concern to me.” Marfisa turns and walks away down the hall, toward the elevators.

“Marfisa!” calls Ysabel, her voice still rough, still weak. “Axe!”

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