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the Garbage Bag – the Towers, the Hills, the Sun – not yet a Dozen –

The garbage bag’s almost empty, but it sways heavily as she shifts it over by the others, stuffed full but much lighter, there by a half-dozen cardboard boxes. Straightening, hand on her hip, baggy black T-shirt, bit of black lace tied about her throat. The windowless room close about her, lit only by the lamp on the floor. Wild shadows loom up the dusty walls. She kneels by that limply weighted bag, unwinds and spreads it open, and the light that dapples up a spill of softly golden morning reflected off calm water, and her eyes drift shut, her shoulders settle, a deep breath in. Footsteps crackle outside. She twists the plastic shut, a sloppy knot to swallow the light, and shoves it under the other bags.

“Hey, Petra,” says Gloria, there in the doorway, tie-dyed coveralls, the top of them unzipped over a T-shirt that says Skunkguckin in hand-scrawled letters. “Wanted to see how you were settling in. You’ve got power up here, good – are you sure you want this room? We’ve got plenty with windows, you know. If they’re painted over, we can get ’em cleaned. All kinds of stuff we can do.”

The woman all in black straightening, stretching, “I want,” she says, “to hang pictures? My shots, so it’s all, the city. Inside? Sort of?” Folding her arms about herself.

“Do you need blankets?” says Gloria. “It’s still a bit chilly at night – we’ve got a bunch of space heaters. Did Anna tell you about the flatpacks?” and then, as Petra frowns, “Come on, I’ll show you,” beckoning, out into the hall, “a desk or two, couple dressers, some shelves, leftovers from our last IKEA run,” sunlight shining from the grimed-over window down at the end, “though we won’t even have to go out there once we get the broadband and the wifi sorted,” ducking a sheet of the dull beige paint that’s peeling in desiccated swathes from the walls and ceiling. “Them and Amazon? We can get whatever we need, delivered right here. Which is good, since we don’t have a truck,” turning ahead, around a corner, Petra, jogging after, “Gloria!” she calls out, footfalls crackling on fallen paint.

Around the corner, a couple of steps down a short flight, Gloria’s looking up at her, expectantly, and Petra folds her arms about herself again, “I don’t,” she says, “I can’t really, the room is a godsend, a lifesaver, literally, I can’t, I, thank you. I just,” as Gloria turning takes a step up toward her, “I really can’t, afford? To do anything like that now. I mean, I’d be out on the street, if you hadn’t,” but up another step, Gloria’s saying, “No, no, you don’t understand: it’s covered. It’s all covered.”

“Covered,” says Petra.

“Anything you need. New camera? Film? If you shoot that? A laptop, maybe. Whatever. Let me know.” Leaning close. “We will make it happen.”

“Covered,” says Petra, again, unfolding an arm.

Down the steps into a foyer floored with tiny yellowing tiles, “That’s the whole point,” Gloria’s saying, “what we’re trying to do here,” back past the staircase under a low long arch, “take what happened, what’s been done to us,” out into the cavernous warehouse, shadowy stalls marching up the length of those high walls, “and make,” she says, a hand up, her pace faltering, “something,” looking up toward the raised stage at the end of the space, the man there, his back to them, stood before canvases leaned one against another, the painted figure dancing from one to the next. “Can I help you?” calls out Gloria.

He turns about, grey jacket, bush of a beard, small dark sunglasses. “You were with the Mooncalfe,” he says.

“Can I help you,” says Gloria, sharply.

He nods, he sighs. “Marfisa,” he says. “The Axe. Sister of the Hound. It is of paramount importance to the universe entire that I speak with her.” And then, “Marfisa?” he says. “She is quite tall, her hair, white – I’m told she lives here, with you?”

“There,” says Gloria, looking up, to the rafters, the shadows.

Mr. Keightlinger plants his hands and hops himself lightly onto the stage, up past the canvases to the skeletal staircase against the wall. “Gloria,” says Petra. “Are you sure?”

“Not now,” says Gloria, watching him climb to the walkway. “The ladder,” she calls out. He puts a hand on a rung, looks up. Starts to climb.

It’s dark, up under the rafters. The makeshift floor of planks smothered under intricately patterned rugs laid one atop another, and a futon on the rugs, and Marfisa, white-gold hair ablaze in the light from the lamp up on a corner of a low shelf crammed with books. She sets aside a paperback curled and worn, Abby Tinker, say the once-gilt letters on the cover, Cynara’s World, and watches as Mr. Keightlinger climbs up onto the rugs, unfolds himself, shoulders hunched, head ducked, but looking up at the ceiling, just above them, full of stars.

The ceiling’s filled with stars: thousands of them burning, coolly, red and orange, green, blue, white, but mostly gold, spangled in whorling drifts and shoals, great wind-licked curls, so many and so bright, and yet so faint their light can barely reach his shadowed face.

“You used to work with the magician,” says Marfisa.

“I,” says Mr. Keightlinger, lowering his sunglasses, turning away from that ceiling so close, so far away. “Need your help. Your brother – ”

“I have no brother.”

“The Handle,” he says. “The Hound.”

“I’ve left all that behind.”

“He has,” says Mr. Keightlinger, “meddled with something terribly dangerous.”

“There’s nothing I might do to help with him.” Marfisa takes up her book.

“You can open the door to the house for me.”

A moment, then, before Marfisa looks up, with a shake of her head.

“Tell me,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “Who else is in that house, besides your brother?”

“He’s not,” says Marfisa, but then, a hitch of her breath, “Grandfather,” she says.

The sun so bright, so high above, so thin but piercing through the cleanly blue to strike staggering gleams from towers crisp against green-draped hills. The spatters on her butter-colored coat have paled to a shade of mud, the dishtowel dark about one hand, her head down stalking her way across the great wide bridge past idling cars and trucks, stalled by some snarl in the traffic ahead. The mane of the mask in her other hand drags the sidewalk in her wake.

The wisp and scratch of the mane, and the scuff and slap of her shoes.

Stopping she looks up, shading her eyes with her towel-wrapped hand. The susurrous breeze can’t manage to stir her hair. The unruffled river below too bright to look at directly. She steps from the sidewalk to the concrete deck, peers through a sunstruck windshield at the seats empty within. Heads from the stilled sedan to grasp the bed of the high-wheeled pickup next in line. No one’s up behind the tinted glass of the rear window of its cab. Past a low-slung empty roadster, the bus there one lane over, Don’t Let LOL Become DOA, the seats through the windows above the ad all empty, and no one at the wheel. Up on the bumper of a town car, onto the trunk of it grunt of shocks as she leaps onto the roof, a crumpling pop as it settles under her weight. Two lanes stretch bumper-to-bumper down the length of the bridge, but silent, empty, still. The towers ahead, and the hills, the sun, the swoop and wheel of freeway ramps behind, the bridges to either side, and only the bright river lapping below.

She lifts that mask up high. The mane skirls, more from the motion of her arm than any breath of air. She holds it high, and then she pulls it down with both hands, and fits it over her head.

The black mane lofts up huge and high, spreading, growing, a sail, a wall, the shadow of it a darkness eclipsing bridge and river, thunderhead uncoiling far above as out she throws her arms, jaw dropped beneath the teeth of that mask, she’s howling and the sudden blare of horns, rumble and snarl of engines, someone’s yelling down below, laughing she’s catching the mask as it tumbles from her face, leaping a bounce from hood to sidewalk and running, running as the rain comes crashing down.

“Holy shit,” and the peals of steel guitar squeezed through a tinny speaker dissolve in a squawk of static. Scrabble of plastic and cardboard someone clambers out of a lean-to strapped to the high wire fence along a sidewalk, filthy jeans and a jacket of army-surplus green, big black hat, he comes up by the woman there in a purple rain shell and sagging khaki shorts, she’s pointing, but she doesn’t have to, boiling up over the trees, out over the river, the bridges, a wild black cloud that climbs to swallow the sky as a great wind rises whipping their clothes the tarps behind them even the gravel scuttling flap and crash a sheet of cardboard bellies up from the ground, clings to the fence, “Wow,” says the woman, the word lost in that buffeting roar and he falls to his knees, cheeks shining wet, throat jumping, “Moody,” she says, loudly, “Moody!” over his hoarsely yawp, grabbing his shoulder as the first fat drops begin to fall, but he swings a shove of a punch at her, she skips back, “Fuck you,” she screams as he tips over flop to the muddening dirt, she’s stooped over crawling under the tarp, “Fuck you!” as he hauls himself up on all fours, retching, green jacket plastered with flower petals wetly pink and white, and more falling flying wheeling through the rain.

Floor-length curtains drawn along the wall, faint light seeping from some device away off in the kitchen, garbage in heaps and mounds all over the floor, she drops the yellow plastic recycling bin with a clinking crash. Red Keds unlaced, legs streaked with mud or something, pink and orange parka shining slickly, dotted with wet flower petals. She kicks that bin over by a bare foot jutted from under a tumble of trash, tin cans and plastic bottles stripped of wrappers, cardboard cartons, plastic tubs, eggshells and screwed-up twists of plastic wrap, paper, balled-up foil, splat of vegetable peels and coffee grounds pattering as he lifts his head, long brown hair damply lank, “What,” he says, blinking, “Jes? That you?” But she’s headed off toward the kitchen.

When she returns, she’s lost the parka, she’s swigging from a green glass bottle, he’s picking over the garbage in the bin, “This it?” he says. “It’s crap.” The clatter growing louder without. “Is it raining?” he says, peering at her wet hair, and the petals caught in the strands. She empties the bottle, whips it away to crash among all that garbage, “Crap?” she says. “You want some beer?” Planting a Ked on his bare chest, pushing him back, down, to squat over him in the darkness. Rucking up the hem of her dingy tank top over her hips. “You miserable, filthy shit,” she says, and a spurt, then a jet of piss splashes his matted beard, and he opens his mouth to gulp it down as rain pelts the glass without.

White apron streaked with red, slender knife in one hand, she steps from the white-walled back room gleaming into the dimmer, wood-trimmed storefront, past a young man in a white shirt, sleeves rolled above his elbows, down the length of the chilled display cases filled with slabs and cuts of meat, thick steaks wetly red, and piles of sausages, a tray of dark-jeweled livers, kebabs bright with cut peppers and onions and mushrooms and spangled with green herbs, richly hued prosciuttos and jamones, out onto the floor past a customer or two toward the windows, streaked with rain and petals, the crashing bouncing clatter of rain on the sidewalk and street out there already faltering, the light already shifting, the late sun struggling out from under those lifting, parting clouds. “Wow, that was, intense,” says a customer behind her as the last flowers drop from the dying wind. “Oh, Phil,” she breathes, a whisper to herself, “this better not be you.”

Rainwater puddles the floor, soaking the Xes of blue masking tape laid here and there, and sodden petals pink and white, the occasional dark red, trail from the double doors to where she’s sprawled, her back against the mirrored wall, pale splattered coat splayed open, and her crudely bandaged hand in her lap. The mask on the floor there beside her, stiff black mane spangled with water, and petals in its strands. She looks up as a man steps into the wide room, close-cropped balding hair and a salt-and-pepper Van Dyke that frames a soured mouth, a paper cup in his hand, and another clamped in the hook he holds out to her. “What’s the other guy look like,” he says, as she takes it.

“No, it wasn’t,” she says, sniffing, sipping, wincing, “it was, a, a vase.” Another sip, eyes widening, a stiff swallow. “I broke a vase.”

“Still. Better get it looked at,” he says, but she laughs, “This?” Lifting her clumsy mitt of browned towel. “I just need to shove it in a bucket of glitter. I’ll be fine.”

“I’d say don’t be stupid,” and he crumples his emptied cup, lets it drop. “But that train’s left the station. What did I tell you? First thing!” Turning away, he aims a kick at a soggy clump of flowers. “Do not get mixed up in this shit!”

“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ, Vincent, I am sorry.” Jo pushes herself to her feet. “Where’s the fucking broom.”

“Don’t you,” spinning about, “laugh this off,” stepping close, she lurches away to bump herself back-to-back in the mirror, “don’t you dare,” he’s saying, “dragging that goddamn thing back in here,” his hook pointing at the mask there on the floor, “you stupid, thoughtless girl, you don’t have the sense God gave a pea,” but “You told me,” she’s saying, “you told me they’d take one look at me, one look and they’d cut me open and steal my lunch money.”

“Yeah, well,” a deep breath, “they still got time.”

“Eleven,” she says, flatly, starkly. He draws back, frowning, “Eleven?” he says, and a glance at the mask. “Eleven,” he says. “The hell are you – are you, you want to compare body counts? Girl, I have,” but her face screws up and a single tremendous sob shakes her shoulders jumps her throat her head knocked back against the glass a retching cough her hand up curling down about herself a snort of breath she shivers with the effort to hold, to press, to clamp. “Eleven,” she says, letting go. Lifting her head. “Directly, with the sword, or, because, I did, something stupid? Or I was scared. Angry. Stupid. But also, because I was,” a shuddering breath, “told to. The Devil. I can’t, I can’t keep doing this.”

“But you’re in it,” says Vincent, voice gentled to a rasp.

“I want out,” she says. “I want to quit.”

“You can’t.”

“You did.”

He steps back, looks down, the puddled floor, the strips of tape, the petals. “What I did,” he says, “that’s easy. Just, walk away. Drop everything. Take off. Leave ’em in the lurch, alone, let him fall, don’t look back. Try not to look back. If you do,” a deep breath, “I wouldn’t call what I did quitting, exactly.” Turning back to her. “You tell yourself you’re ready, you know what it means. That you’ll never see her again. But you aren’t. You never will be. It will never, let up, the shock of realizing over and over you will never. See her. Again. So,” he says, blinking rapidly. “There’s that.” The doors behind them rattling, someone’s trying the knobs. Someone’s knocking. Jo steps away from the mirrored wall as Vincent turns away, heads for the doors, “Hang on!” he calls as the knocking becomes a pounding, booming. Jo stoops there by the mask. The mane of it stirring as she picks it up and turns it over in her hands. “I wasn’t kidding, about the broom,” she says. “I’ll clean this up.”

“You’re gonna need a mop,” says Vincent, undoing the lock, opening the door. “And careful with the tape. I am not about to reblock Titus.”

Jo looks up, blankly, at the man stood there, grey jeans and a soft yellow shirt, his hair a shock of pinkish orange, “Hey, Dad,” he’s saying, “is she,” and then, as she’s getting to her feet, the mask in her bandaged hand, “Huntsman!” he calls. “Are you well?”

That black mane sways as she takes a halting step toward them both. Shakes out her free hand, lifts it, and light flares in that wide room.

Table of Contents

Cynara’s World, written by Abby Tinker, ©1979. Bile ’em Cabbage Down,” arranged by Buck Owens, within the public domain. Titus Andronicus, written by William Shakespeare and George Peele, within the public domain.

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