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.
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.