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Eyelids a-Twitch – Played again – How she Might hear – “The hell with the milk” –

Eyelids twitching over mud-colored eyes that widen, startled, but then she smiles, stretching under the comforter, lifting her bare arms up and out and sighing deeply, turning on her side. There’s Ysabel sitting on the floor by the futon, chin on her folded hands. “You’re awake,” she whispers.

“Yup,” says Jo, reaching out to stroke her cheek, leaning in for a kiss.

“He isn’t,” mutters Ysabel, against her lips.

Jo rolls back. There on the other pillow a cap of black hair turned away, a broad brown back, hillocks and bunches of muscle soft and still. “Poor tuckered boy,” she says.

“This must be the first he’s slept since you were struck.”

“He stepped out, just for a minute, and that’s when I woke up. He was, so apologetic,” her hand laid gently on that great shoulder.

“Come,” says Ysabel, getting to her feet, and Jo rolls back, looks up to her standing over the futon, a bulky fisherman’s sweater over a loose white gown, a hand held out. “I’m,” says Jo, the comforter clutched to her chest, “I need to,” and Ysabel steps back, “If you must,” she says, headed for the door. “But come.”

Jo sits up. Drops the comforter. Luys doesn’t stir. She’s looking down, at the clean pink line drawn down her skin, and her fist pressed over her heart.

Up the thin white T-shirt from the floor and over her head she’s standing, the light about uncertain, shrouded in the doubting rain outside. On the wall there by the door the painted skull-mask and its mane hung motionless, and slung from its leather strap the plain black scabbard, and snug within, her sword.

“Ysabel?” she says, hand on the knob of the door across the hall, under the little yellow lights, but a wrenching screech from the bathroom, the crash of water, the light bright within. Jo lets go of the knob.

Ysabel’s already doffed her sweater. “Go on,” she says, over the rushing water, wrestling with the gown she’s tugging up over her head, letting it drop, and only a bit of mushroom-colored silk and ivory lace about her hips. “You,” says Jo. “You want to. Turn, some owr.” Sitting with some care on the edge of the tub, her hand, hovering uncertainly before her breast. “Look, if this is about replacing what you had to, I mean, for me, there’s still, the surplus? From a couple weeks ago?” Ysabel’s stepped away, toward the sink, the jagged oblong of mirror set in the wall above it. “Unless – Christ, Ysabel, how much did it take to sew me up?”

Ysabel’s picked something up, a small blue balloon tied off at one end, swollen with liquid weight. She slops it into Jo’s hand, and “This,” says Jo, poking it with a finger, “this is a condom.”

“I’ve been,” says Ysabel, “with the Starling.”

“Oh,” says Jo.

“We must do right by her.”

“Okay,” says Jo, the condom in her hand. “But – ”

“With all that we’ve been able to do, with the turning, with surpassing our mother and restoring the, the city,” and she sighs. “We,” she says, quietly, under the churn of falling water, “I, wronged Chrissie. I would not do that, to the Starling.”

“Okay,” says Jo.

“I would give this back to her as gold, and set her free.”

“But,” says Jo, “I mean, right now. You want to do this.”

“Are you up for it?” says Ysabel. “Are you still in pain?”

Jo leans back, over the steaming tub, twisting the faucets squeak and groan. “Eh,” she says, as the flow of water gurgles to a stop. “Mostly tired. Shaky, weak-as-a-kitten tired. Which, I mean, I just woke up, you know?” One last twist of the faucet.

“You were strong enough to bear the Mason’s weight,” says Ysabel, in the silence.

Jo sits up. “The fuck is that supposed to mean,” she says.

“Show me,” says Ysabel. “Your wound.” Stepping close, taking Jo’s hands in her own, and that small blue egg clutched between them. “Show me how it healed.”

Jo steps back, lifts up the hem of her T-shirt, and Ysabel kneels then on the white tile before her, and strokes that faintly puckered seam, stitched up from crease of thigh and up across the belly. “Your skin,” she says. “It remembers.”

“This time,” says Jo, letting the shirt fall, but Ysabel catches it, lifts it up again, “don’t,” says Jo, but “Show me,” says Ysabel, and “I did,” says Jo, stepping back, away, but Ysabel stands, tugs, “the rest of it,” she’s saying, “what did it do,” and Jo catches Ysabel’s hand, “hey” and “stop” and “don’t” as she yanks and twists, “I must see it!” cries Ysabel, “What is over your heart!” and that little blue balloon squirts free to arc to fall to burst there on the floor.

“Shit,” says Jo.

The deflated condom, darker now, the knot skewed by a rent, the milkily viscous splotch frothed desultorily with bubbles popping as it spills lazily into the grout between tiny hexagonal tiles.

“Shit,” says Jo, again. “I’m, I’m sorry.” Stepping back. “Can you, I mean, but you can just, get more. Right?” One small step, a shift of weight, back in. “Right?”

“Gallowglas,” says Ysabel, quietly, still looking down at the mess. “Leave us.”

“Gah,” she says, shutting the big front door on a dripping susurrus, shaking herself from her sodden coat. “Wasn’t it, like, seventy-five yesterday, or something?” Unwinding a gauzy stretch of scarf. There in the open collar of her white shit a thicket of black ink, leaves and branches, a songbird’s beak.

“Hey,” says the big man coming up to her, there by the grand dark staircase, “we need to talk.” An explosion rattles the windows, and “Aw, crap,” she says, “is he playing that again?” Leaning past him, “Hey!” she yells, at the guy on the beanbag before the garish television screen. “Turn that down!”

“Ellen,” says the big man before her, shawl-collared sweater over a T-shirt that says Dave’s Dog Dave. “It’s about,” and he points up, at the ceiling, “him.”

“Yeah?” The receding rat-a-tat of gunfire.

“How long, exactly, will he be staying?”

She shrugs. “Long as he needs, Dan.”

“I don’t mean to tell you your business – ”

“So don’t,” she says, stepping up onto the stairs, but he moves in close, “None of the rest of us know him,” he says. Another dulled whump of explosion. “My friend,” says Ellen, “my room, my,” she frowns, looks away, “business,” she says, taking another step up.

“Ellen!” says Dan, starting up behind her. “Ellen, what the hell was he doing, wearing my shirt?”

She’s still frowning, looking down, at her feet on the stairs, at him below. “You know what he was doing, Dan,” she says, and up she goes.

A single glass vase, a singular stalk of artificial pussy willow, and bolted to the wall above a wooden sign, scrolled edges and gilt letters that say Rooms 201 – 209, Rooms 221 – 232, and frilly arrows pointing left and right. She scoops her phone out of her pink and orange parka, flips it open, thumbs to a text message that says only 213. Snaps it shut, heads off to the left, pink and orange and white yoga pants, red canvas Keds, her yellow hair loose about her shoulders.

Cream doors to either side down dull beige walls. She stops by the one that gilded says 213. Tips her head back and forth, shakes out her hands. Unzips her parka, and underneath a white sports bra, her midriff bare. She knocks.

The man who opens the door’s a tangle of blond hair and a big blond beard, and his white blouse half undone. “Not here,” he says, and then, relaxing, “Oh?” he says.

“Harper,” says Jessie, her smile tight, her lips shellacked a glossy pink, her eyeshadow pink and a glittery silver frost.

“Rain,” says the Harper. “Been a while.”

“I went, last week, down to the club,” she says, and “New management,” he says, with a weary shake of his head. “I know!” says Jessie. “The Stirrup. Can you believe it?”

He steps back, opening the door. “Wouldn’t give you a slot, would he.”

“He told me where to find you,” says Jessie, stepping in.

“You smell like a lollipop,” says the Harper.

“Like it?” Past a bathroom and a closet the room opens up under bright ceiling lights, a low dresser, an exorbitant television set, a couple of queen-sized beds, one mounded with stacks of white boxes, and on each of them a photo of what’s presumably inside, keyboards, music players, remotes, phones, and the other bed a rumpled mess of blankets and pillows piled, a plate of crumbs, an empty soda bottle clinked beside. The Harper in that white blouse and his bright green boxer briefs, his bare legs blondly furred. “Did I wake you?” says Jessie.

“You, who worked your way up under a Duke, a Queen,” he says. “Must you now go trawling for humble knights?”

“Chilli,” she says, “can we just do this?”

“Do what, my – ah, forgive me.” He combs his fingers through his beard. “Away from court as I am, I’ve no idea of the current fashion in addressing former concubines.”

“Rain,” sighs Jessie, “is fine.” Her hands in the pockets of her parka.

“Then, my rainy Rain,” says the Harper, “a hundred other clubs await, and none of ’em run by me; go! Dance!” and a magnanimous sweep of his hand toward the door. “You have my blessing.”

“But I need the money, now, is the thing.”

“Now?” A scuff of laughter. “I’m not a bank.”

“Why not?” A deep breath, pink-shaded eyes a-squint, “You forget, Chilli. I’ve seen the dukedom’s books. I know what you bring in, running girls.”

He folds his arms. “You want me taking care of you.”

“I want you to give me two thousand dollars,” says Jessie, and he guffaws. “Tonight,” she says. “And then, this weekend, I work for you. Whatever I make, it’s yours. Send someone with me,” she says, as he rolls his eyes, “if the word of the Hawk’s widow isn’t enough. Come on, Chilli. If you have half an idea what you’re doing, it’s,” and her pocketed hands open up the parka, “a sure thing,” in a shrug of a display. “What do you think?”

He steps over to that enormous television, and the dresser beneath. Kneeling, his hands on the knobs of the bottommost drawer, “I think I got it covered,” he says, and with a grunt he pulls it out.

Within a cloud of taffeta fluffed about a length of smoothly gleam like polished wood, and when it rustling moves Jessie gasps, there’s an ankle, a foot, a thigh and hip, a figure jackknifed forehead to knee lifting up and up a leg unfolding elbow wrist a hand stretched up and out and Jessie’s stepping back, a groan, a pop of wood, silver glitters, pushing rolling turning standing up, a woman in a cocktail dress of mirrored sequins, smiling woozily, blond hair in squiggled curls. “It’s time?” she says, a breathy squeak.

“A couple hours yet, sweetling,” says the Harper, still sat on the floor, holding up a pair of silver slingbacks. “I thought you might like a walk about the lobby, or the lot?” She’s leaning back, lifting a foot, slipping on a shoe. “See what you turn up on your own.” He holds up a white keycard. “Use the room next door.”

“Nifty!” she says, turning to go, a couple inches taller now, and a strut in her step. “Hello,” she says, smiling brilliantly at Jessie.

“No more than an hour,” calls the Harper after her. And then, “So,” he says, still sitting on the floor, to Jessie, still staring. “Two thousand dollars, or,” a nod at the door, swinging shut, “just the wear and tear. Which do you think?” The drawer, still open beside him, fluffs of taffeta drifting about the depression left crushed in that nest. The drawer above it, closed, the same width, the same height. “Well,” she says. “You could,” and she shudders, looking about, the bed mounded with boxes, the other bed messily rumpled, the Harper on the carpet in his bright green briefs. “Leo,” she says, and a scowl creeps over his face, “Leo,” she says again, “tolerated your pimping, but this – ”

“The Duke is gone,” snaps the Harper, “and desperate times call for measures desperate. If they will not let me fight for my honor,” and a hand on the carpet now, and he’s leaning on that hand, “I’ll buy it back, instead.”

“Buy it?” she says. “Even Bruno would, would balk at this. What were you thinking, what, that Jo, would have anything to do with this? With you, after she heard about this?”

He lifts that hand from the carpet, a fist now about the stubby golden hilt of the sword he swings around and up as he pulls himself to his feet. “And how would her grace come to hear about it?”

“What,” she says, “what’re you,” as he steps close, as she steps back, brought up thump against the door, “kill me?”

“A step, a shift of weight,” he says, the scalloped tip of his sword slipped between the pink and orange placket of her parka, there to crease the gore of her bra. “I won’t just,” she says, looking right into his pale blue eyes looking right back at her. “There’ll be blood,” she says.

He rocks back, sword-tip slipping free. “A tragedy’s been writ, and played out many times, that ends with a woman’s body in a dumpster. And here’s you, dressed for the part! The police might not even bother to file a report.”

“Oh, Chilli,” she says. “Chilli, you damned fool. It’s not the police.” Shaking her head as he pulls back another step, and his sword with him. “It’s Ysabel,” she says. “The Queen. Falling on you, to avenge, her love.” But her voice quavers as she says it, and the corners of her eyes do shine.

The demure brown of the door melts into the brickwork about it as he closes it, and locks it with a key on a lanyard about his neck. Works his head back and forth, shakes out his arms, couple-few jogging steps in place there on the sidewalk. Turning about to set off he yelps, leaps back, “Excuse me,” says Marfisa, stood not an arm’s length away, hands in the pockets of her sheepskin coat.

“You always,” he says, hand to his chest, deep breaths, “sneak up, like that?” Taller than he seems at first, his dwindling hair clipped close.

“I wanted to let you know,” she says. “Tomorrow night, we’re hosting a,” and then she stops, frowning, as away off a block or so a clattering crash, “a, ah,” she says, “a sort of, gallery opening,” and he shakes his head at that. “You make any noise,” he says, “we call the cops.” There’s another rumble and crash. “The hell?” he says, looking away toward the corner.

“There’ll be,” she says, looking off away too, at the echoes, “live music,” but he’s waving a hand, “If there’s any kind of a disturbance,” he says, “I don’t care if you own the block, we’re calling the cops. Okay? Thanks for the warning and all, but – ”

“This isn’t,” she says, sharply, and then a shake of her white-gold head. “I’m here to invite you,” she says.


“Both,” she’s saying, but a rapid thumping’s started up, around that corner. “Excuse me,” says Marfisa, turning, striding away, and “Both?” he says, frowning, but she leaps at a yelp from faintly off that way, around the corner, down the slope along the looming blue-grey bulk of the warehouse, that thumping getting louder, a roll of cyclone fencing leaned up against the wall there, and an old worn sign tipped on its side that says Wilson Properties, and someone’s screaming. Marfisa kicks off the bundle of uprooted fenceposts ringing under her bootheel up to crouch on a shallow threshold jutted beneath the door cut into the wall there, three or four feet up, and her fist a clang of a knock, and still the banging, the screams, the roaring rush, like wings. Gripping either jamb, leaning back knee cocked and up the sole of her boot, boom, another, pop the door. She shoulders her way in.

Dust and litter and pieces of paper, a tarpaulin skirling, madly rips of wind through all that cavernous space, she throws up a hand, “Hey!” she hollers, “Anna?” and over by the green couch another shriek. She bulls her way through the flapping hurricane, “Gloria!” An answering “Mar!” from there in the corner.

“What happened!” she cries, stooping beside them, huddled under a stretched canvas borne up on Gloria’s broad back.

“She didn’t get the milk!” wails Anna, head on the floor, hands over her head.

“The fuck with the milk!” roars Gloria, and they’re pelted with handfuls of nuts and bolts. Marfisa ducks as her bright white hair flies up, a turbulent cloud that skeins itself into knotted hanks and “Damn you!” she bellows, “You dare!” At that the litter all about them drops, and a thunderous silence. Marfisa stands there, panting, as Gloria heaves the canvas up and over, helps Anna to her feet. “Hempen!” cries a voice out there, and “Hampen!” another, over that way, and “Hempen! Hampen!” again, and again, Gloria peering wildly about, that first voice crying “Neither!” over the boxes tumbled, tarps askew, “Neither no more!” and “No more tread!” and “No more stampen!” echoing about, and “What the hell?” says Gloria.

“Shut up,” says Marfisa.

“Hempen!” this voice, and “Neither no more!” that, and “No more tread nor stampen!”

“Where did they,” says Gloria, and “Shut up,” says Marfisa, and “Hempen!” cry the voices now in unison. “Hampen! Neither no more tread nor stampen!”

“Shut up!” roars Marfisa. “Now!” Grabbing the handrail of the skeletal staircase, those voices a cacophony again, “Outlaw!” and “Bandit!” and “Exile!” echoing as she climbs, steps clanging, “Enough!” she hollers, up there on the walkway, a hand on a rung of the brief ladder bolted to the wall. “I will show you the law!” she calls down. “I will show you who’s without it!” She starts climbing, up toward the makeshift floor of planks above.

“We are so fucked,” Gloria’s muttering, “we are so fucked, we are so fucked,” and “Would you please stop,” snaps Anna.

“Hilda’s here in an hour, in an hour to load in,” says Gloria, kicking at the trash. “How the fuck are we gonna, how the fuck, how – ”

“Perhaps,” says Anna, still looking up, “next time, you will remember the milk.”

“The hell with the milk,” says Gloria, and the light changes.

The light changes, softly golden falling now to warm away the shadows, gloss Gloria’s black hair, to ruddy Anna’s mousey brown and glint her glasses. Down there, out in that cavernous space, things move and shift as people stand, three four five of them stepping out, looking up, lit by a seeping summer twilight. Up on the walkway there’s Marfisa, holding up a shallow wooden box, and the lid of it open, and all that light within. “Here!” Her free hand scoops up sunlight, flings it out, clouds of buttery sparks that arc, that fall, an afternoon in fireworks. “Take it up!” The box snaps shut, light shifting as the brightness starts to melting settle. “Clean up your mess with it,” she says, setting the box at her feet, “tread it, and stamp it,” as she stands back up, a wooden bat now in her hand, “and what is left, is yours!” Clang the bat against the railing, as toppled boxes rustle upright, as tarpaulins loft into place, as those scraps of paper and canvas sullenly sweep themselves away, as Gloria’s turning about, eyes wide, as Anna turns away, her hand to her mouth. Light congeals to wisps of glistening fog, streaming, swirling, and one more clang of the bat against the railing. “There is more,” cries Marfisa, “where that came from!”

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