Midnight Writer: Poet

I wanted to be a poet,

To write words that would burn with their beauty.

To cauterize the wounds of the world with a few deft syllables.

 

I wanted to be a poet,

To shine a light into the dark with rhyme and rhythm.

To make constellations on the page to lead people home.

 

I wanted to be a poet,

To sit in silence and slip the pieces of my heart through floorboards.

To smuggle my soul into the world like dynamite and set it to flames.

 

I wanted to be a poet.

But it turned out I’m just a human with too many words.

And no one reads poems anymore, anyway.

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IX

Renata ran like the devil was at her heels. If only, she thought. The devil would’ve been an easier problem.

“Do you think he could’ve been wrong?” Matti asked, half a step behind her, sword at the ready. A shriek, discordant and sharp, pierced the air from somewhere up ahead. “Never mind.”

Renata’s mind raced. If this was what they thought, if it was what the runner had said, – and there was no reason to think it wasn’t; even in Nevermore, few things made sounds like that – they were in deep trouble.

Maulers weren’t the only monsters of the deep, but they were some of the absolute nastiest. Ancient and awful. Dissemblers, they were sometimes called. The Living Abomination. God Killers, she’d heard the old ghosts call them and she believed it. They destroyed every sentient thing they touched, all the way down to the atoms. All the way down to the soul. Not even demons were that efficient.

The local hives were all either long dead or deeply hibernating, but sometimes scouts and hunting parties still came out to eat or defend the hive if anything got too close. The former was happening somewhere up ahead. A party of Mauler scouts had risen far above their usual hunting grounds. And of course, in all the vast, empty places that were tangled amidst Nevermore’s roots, they managed to find a posse of rum runners and railroaders, all pulsing and delicious with the life beyond. More than a dozen souls, or so she’d been told, being hunted by super predators. And the screaming she heard echoing through the tunnels seemed to confirm the worst.

They were deep beneath the city now. The signs of human workings, bricks and cement, basements and cellars, had given way to roughhewn passages and natural cave systems. Mining lamps broke up the dark in places. Phosphorescent rocks and algae cast eerie light where the lamps failed. The roars were getting closer, though Renata didn’t know if that was because they were getting closer or the Maulers were. She didn’t know if they were right around the bend or down another shaft. Sound traveled strangely in Nevermore at the best of times. The screams kept coming. Human voices, panicked and scared. Metallic screeching and clicks, made by creatures that abhorred sound. Coming ever closer.

If it were just her and Matti, Renata would run away. Run hard, run fast, and leave a lot of debris in her wake – make themselves too much trouble to be worthwhile prey. There were enough forgotten things to hunt in the dark pockets of the earth to make chasing one almost human girl and her ghost unappealing.

But it wasn’t the two of them. It was much more. And no one else would come.

Renata ran towards the fight. Matti followed, sword at the ready. There were worse things to die for, they knew.

It was chaos.

The memory of a prohibition tunnel had been torn apart, the wall on one side clawed through to reveal a cavern that stretched into abyssal dark. The mining lamps cast thin light only a few feet into the dark. But that was enough to reveal where the carnage began.

Bodies, whole and dismembered, were scattered across an uneven floor. Three Maulers were occupied with pulling their victims apart and divvying the kills. A fourth scuttled about in the dark. The half-light caught the hints of its movement and turned the ridiculous crabwalk into something nightmarish.

Renata hovered at the edge of the hole. She peered into the dark, looking at the carnage, looking for any survivors. She didn’t expect there to be any. But she’d hoped. She always hoped. Ever the optimist, ever the fool. (And what would you do if you found any, came the cruel thought. The only things that could fight Maulers and win were members of the heavenly host, and they had better things to do than save the spirits of some bootleggers and runaway slaves who hadn’t the good sense to cross over. Was Renata fool enough to die for them? Yes, she answered. Always yes.)

Nevertheless, she was braced for the loss, and a quick, brutal clean up. Close up the hole. Block as many paths as they could find. Spread the word there’d been a Mauler attack. They’d be creeping through the undercity for the better part of a week.

She looked over her shoulder. Matti was there, as ever. His sword was at the ready. It was now or never.

Help. Help us,” a voice whispered below her.

What?

Carefully, very carefully, Renata lowered herself onto her stomach and peered over the lip of the hole into the cavern. Directly underneath her, hidden under a ledge and behind a pair of thick stalagmites, were three spirits. The closest one pointed to Renata’s right. Two more frightened faces looked up at her. She wasn’t too late after all.

She squashed that wild hope before it could get her killed. Everything was much more dangerous now. She whispered back, “This is going to be very fast. When I say go, you all get up here and run. Head up to the city and don’t stop until you see sunlight.”

Some of them shook their heads furiously. Renata saw the fear in their eyes and the unhealed welts on their bodies. The chains they were running from were still wrapped around their bodies. Hot fury threatened to overwhelm her. Renata squashed that, too.

No one is coming for you anymore,” she hissed. “No one can take you anywhere if you don’t want to go! But these things are gonna kill what’s left of ya if you don’t listen to me and run!”

Two of the Maulers shrieked over their kills and someone jumped in fright, triggering a tiny avalanche of pebbles. It was only a small rush of sound. But it was enough. They’d been spotted.

Matti was ready. He struck his sword against stone and leapt into the cavern with a roar of his own. The sword rang like a tuning fork, high and clear. Already the nearest Maulers fell back from the sound.

Now!” Renata yelled at the souls below as she stood and joined Matti. Hellfire burst to life at her finger tips, lighting up the dark. She stoked it hotter, brighter, until the flames were white hot and blinding to look at.

Those were the weapons against Maulers, the only ones that worked: light and sound. The purer the better. Light that stung, tone that pierced. Matti held his sword aloft, the metal still reverberating in the open space of the cavern. He was singing, too, the melody unfamiliar but harmonized to the sword. The Maulers kept falling back, though Renata could tell they were regrouping, looking for weaknesses. Watching where their prey was escaping.

Renata could hear the other souls running. They were clumsy and slow in the dark. That was fine; Renata was more than willing to shed a little light on the situation.

She set her Hellfire free, throwing up a wall of white flame between the Maulers and herself. Then she and Matti ran as well. The railroaders were gone, hopefully far ahead of them by now. And not a moment too soon. The fourth Mauler, the watcher, had been perched on cave ceiling. It cleared the fire wall easily. Dammit. Matti and Renata staggered their own retreat, throwing up more fire and setting the blade to sing intermittently. Anything to give the others a better chance to escape. But the fourth Mauler was hot on their heels and gaining.

They needed new terrain. Another cavern to get lost in, or a shaft they could bring down behind them. But Nevermore, usually so accommodating to the desires of a focused will, kept sending them down the same rough tunnels. If Matti or Renata tried to bring these tunnels down, they’d be crushing themselves as well. The situation was dire, but maybe not dire enough for that? Not yet, at least. Renata clung to that hope as the ancient, god-killing, giant, armored hell-lobster chased her through unstable dream tunnels.

God, she was about to die as she’d lived: an optimistic dumbass.

“To your left!”

The voice came from a break in the rock on their left. It was small and well camouflaged. Renata wouldn’t have seen it if not for the hand sticking out and waving. Renata threw up one more fire wall as Matti tried the passage. With a pull from the mysterious hand, he scraped through, then turned to aid her. She slid in sideways. It was as even tighter fit than she’d expected. Rock scraped her skin through her dress and scuffed her boots. Her locs snagged on sharp outcroppings. She pushed on anyway. Hair could be replaced, after all. Skin regrew.

Souls that had been chewed by Maulers didn’t.

With one last pull, she was through the crevice, falling forward into Matti. He steadied her as she found her feet. And then again as the earth rumbled around them. From the tunnel they’d just escaped came a terrible roar and a burst of dusty, debris-filled air as unknown tons of rock and earth came crashing down, burying the Mauler and its’ path.

“Well! That was damn good timing if I say so myself.”

You!” Renata seethed at her unexpected savior.

“Hello, Andras,” Matti offered, a calm but chilly counterpoint to Renata’s ire. “Thank you for the assistance. We’re both very grateful. What the hell are you doing here and what do you want from us?”

“Okay, first of all? Rude. I’ve told you both time and again to call me Renfrew; no one calls me Andras outside of the office and really, it just puts me off my good mood.” Renata rolled her eyes. Matti shook the grit from his hair. “Here I am, doing a good thing, saving two of Nevermore’s greatest heroes from certain soul death, and I’m treated with suspicion? With distrust? With blatant accusations of ulterior motives? I’ve never-“

“We thanked you, we’re leaving. Matti?.”

“Goodbye, Andras. Let’s not do this again.”

“Wait!” Renfrew held up both hands, palms out like he could stop them. ”I need your help.”

“That’s an understatement,” Matti muttered.

Renata nodded. “We’re going to have to decline. We’ve got a lot on our plates right now and it’s kind of time sensitive, so we’re gonna be on our way.” She and Matti began to edge past him.

“Wait!” he said again, and this time put enough power in his words to hold their feet. Something violent and wild burned behind Renata’s eyes, and Matti had his sword lifted. Renfrew began to talk fast.

“The Aberration are supposed to be asleep. All the ones that aren’t dead, anyway. Forces stronger than any of us can dream of put them down an epoch ago, and the gods can only guess why they chose to do that and not simply exterminate them. Yes, there are sentries who guard the hive, but they still stay close to it. The surface is anathema to them. Too bright. Too loud. Yes? Yes. So what are they doing here? Why did a full hunting party of Aberration leave not just their hive, not just their hunting grounds, not just the Lower Labyrinths,” Renfrew emphasized that with particular vehemence, “but crawled all the way up to the bottom of the damned sub-city. That sort of thing doesn’t just happen.”

“Agreed,” Renata snapped at him. “Which is why Matti and I are here. Which is why we’re going to make sure the tunnels are filled in and people are warned as soon as you’re finished with us. So we’re back to Matti’s questions: what are you doing here and what do you want from us? I would think a few Maulers running loose would be right up your alley. Your kind likes the whole chaos and death angle, right?”

Renfrew levelled a look at her. He pursed his lips, opened them to comment, then closed them again. In his current human guise, a skinny ginger with a too wide mouth, he looked like an irritated goldfish.

“Chaos and death are not the exclusive domain of Hell and its inmates. Otherwise, you wouldn’t exist, Miss Black.” Renata twitched. “And chaos is only valuable to ‘my kind,’ as you say, if Lu can control it. Which he can’t. The Aberration are unmanageable. For anyone. And that, my young lich, makes it a problem for everyone if the Aberration are rising.”

Renata and Matti looked at him, skepticism writ large across their faces.

“Who’s saying they’re rising?
“And why is anyone trusting…you to get things under control?”

Renfrew’s mouth twisted into an even tighter pucker before opening too wide again. Renata imagined him making that face through the glass of a fish tank. “My sources, and my own investigations, have hinted that the local hives are waking up.”

Renata felt the news like punch to the gut. All the air was gone, from the cave, from her lungs, from the world. She sensed Matti stiffen beside her. An active hive. No, not a hive. All of them. All the ones she knew about and who knew how many more in the deep, dark places of Creation.

Renfrew continued. “At the moment, Hell and the Host are only passingly aware of the problem, and yes, I am trusted to handle it appropriately because that’s part of my job. Dealing with this before Lucifer notices is ideal, as generally anything big enough to catch his interest is enough to catch Heaven’s as well. And we’d all rather keep as little attention on this cursed planet as possible.”

“And what would happen if they did come,” Matti asked. “The host we’ve met have all been-”

“They’ve all been here on the sly,” Renfrew scoffed. “Or posted here as to study you all. The universe is a great big melting pot of mistakes that everyone is trying to deal with in their own ways, which usually leads to more mistakes, etc. One active hive on one cursed world isn’t going to bring anyone running until the Aberration has chewed a hole in reality. We want to prevent that. Because when the full focus of the Host falls on this little world, there will be no glorious rapture, no nirvana, just a brutish end and the fires of judgment to hopefully send everyone where they should be. For as well as that works,” he huffed tiredly and Renata and Matti agreed. “And even then, some Aberration will probably survive. Damned cosmic cockroaches.”

How?” Renata had found her voice at last.  “How are they waking? And what -what does that even mean for us?”

“We don’t know. There’s no precedence. In the past, the only things which have upset a slumbering hive this way is a threat or the appearance of a rival queen.”

“And which is it,” Renata prodded. “A threat or a queen?”

“If I knew, I would’ve dealt with myself. Or told you two and run. My best guess at this point is that someone new in town is strong enough to be a threat. Or brought a queen with them, impossible as that is to imagine. I’m looking into it. But I am a simple Lord of Hell; I can’t be everywhere. And you two are very skilled and very well connected, Above and Below, and in the In Between.”

“…. Did it hurt you? To admit that?”

“So much, you have no idea. But my ego aside, the danger is real and I would like your help to solve it. Quickly, if possible. Whatever it is that’s set them off – queen, threat, or a greater unknown – the Aberration are looking for it. There will be more attacks like this, I’m certain. At least until they find what they’re looking for, and then…. I’m asking you to help me find it before they do.”

Matti considers him.

“And what do you want us to do once we find it? The thing that’s waking them up.”

“Whatever is necessary.”

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VIII

Fin was used to old houses. She was used to places where the floorboards creaked and doors refused to latch. There had been plenty of them in Louisiana, especially after Katrina, and in New Mexico before that. Fin preferred them to new developments. She didn’t care for those vacant places. They lacked the weight and noise that came from lifetimes lived out within their walls.

Fin believed in ghosts. Not that she’d ever seen one, but she thought it made more sense for them to exist than not. She wasn’t scared of them – or the idea of them, that is – any more than she was of creaking floors. The dead were like bees or spiders; too busy doing their own thing to be a bother to anyone with the sense to stay out of their way.

She didn’t confuse them, either. A ghost was a ghost and a door with a crooked frame was a door with a crooked frame. What good was there in conflating the two? Fin had never seen a ghost, but she’d seen enough strangeness (doors that should not have moved and floors that should not have creaked, and yet-) that she thought she would know when one was near. She thought she would be prepared should she ever see one.

All this to say that when she carried her laundry to the basement one bright summer morning, she thought nothing of the noisy stairs, beyond that the wood was old, and the locks on the door had always been there, so why wonder about them now?

The stairs from the kitchen led down to the wash room. Washer and dryer were positioned under the high, thin window that looked into the pack yard. There was a utility sink, an ironing board, and a tall Ikea cabinet filled with detergent and other chemicals along the far wall. Beneath the stairs, Fin eyed the deep, recessed crevice there suspiciously, looking for snakes or scorpions. There was nothing.

Fin’s faint memories of the basement seemed to be accurate. The floor was concrete, the walls were cracked plaster and exposed red brick. There were load bearing walls that divided the space into what could be generously called rooms. When she peaked in the nearest doorway, curious, all she saw was a pile of boxes and trash bags. On the other side of the room, leading towards the front of the house, was a dark, empty doorway. Fin thought she might’ve remembered that her Pop-pop kept a work bench back there. An alternative for when the weather got too cold to visit the shed. But he’d died when she was very young and the memories were soft.

It was a setting ripe for ghosts. And Fin believed in ghosts. But Fin didn’t go looking for them, either. The dead were people, just doing their own thing. Bees, only troublesome when interrupted. She turned to her laundry and ignored the far room.

Or, she tried to.

She separated and loaded and double and triple checked the machine – a different beast than what her mothers had – to make sure she wasn’t going to wreck her clothes via whatever happened when clothes were washed wrong. She dusted off the folding table and the shelves which, aside from new detergent, looked like they hadn’t been used for their intended purpose in years.

She did not pay attention to the temperature dropping, or the light from the narrow window above her fading away. She did not give it any mind when there were footsteps overhead. The Christmas music got her attention, though. And then a staggering awareness of all the rest.

“What the fuck?” Fin whispered to herself.

“Lucia?” a voice called from somewhere far behind her. She spun around. There was a light on in the next room. The sound of shuffling footsteps, soft-soled slippers cutting a path over dust and grit. Fin’s heart thudded in her chest, heavy and painful. She heard the front door open upstairs and Nonna’s muffled voice greeted guests. More footsteps above her head, voices joining Nonna’s and chattering on top of Christmas carols. The smell of cooking drifted down – veal meatballs frying on the stove, the anise scent of pizzella – and joined the new scent of pine cleaner and mothballs. That hadn’t been there before. The radio upstairs played “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – was born on Christmas day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray –

“Lucia?” the croaking voice called again. It was closer now. Fin couldn’t move. A combination of fear and curiosity had frozen her in place. She didn’t want to see what was coming. But she needed to. Her mind contorted itself, trying to come to terms with what her senses were telling her. And all the while, Fin became aware of a growing part of herself that was unsurprised.

It spread like an oil slick on water, a dreadful calm that silenced the roar of her brain. The world slowed. She knew what was coming. She knew and she was there to bear witness.

A figure appeared in the doorway, tall and gaunt. There was blood on his shirt, on his wrists, dripping to the cement floor.

“Lucia?”

No, Fin was not ready for this.

She ran up the steps, heavy footfalls thundering as she went. They drowned out the sound of the music, of the voices; only the pounding of her heart was as loud. She tripped on the top step and only her momentum kept her from tumbling backwards. Instead, she sprawled across the floor, legs pinwheeling in the air, trying to find something to push off from while her arms pulled herself forward.

Finally, she hooked the door with a foot and slammed it closed. In a flash, Fin was back on her feet, hands rushing to close the locks – hook, chain, deadbolt. She slid a chair in front of the closed door, too, just in case.

The house was quiet. No Christmas music played. No voices talked happily over one another. No shuffling footsteps followed her up the stairs. Her grandfather’s voice did not call out again for his wife. The sun was summer bright and hot on her back, where the kitchen windows let it in. The only sound anywhere was her own heart.

“What the fuck,” Fin whispered. “What the fuck?”

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Midnight Writer: Poems about Retail

“Things I’ve Said At Least Once A Week for Three Years.

(or: So Long and Thanks for All the Hats)”

 

Welcome!

Don’t worry, those doors don’t close all the way.

Can I help you find anything?

Feel free to try things on.

Let me know if you have any questions.

 

Do we sell any hats? No, we’re all out, we do have a bow tie, though. Hahaha.

Most of our hats start at $100 and go up from there.

They’re handmade/made in America/made in Italy/made in small batches/designer made.

Head sizes vary and so do hats. Unless you’re a woman, then you get mediums with sizing ties.

 

Some Panama straw hats can actually be cleaned with Windex!

We don’t usually carry that style in store because the brims are hell to maintain on a show floor.

Trust me, steam is your best friend when it comes to hat care.

Don’t pinch the crown. It’ll ruin the hat.

 

You can tell it’s a genuine Panama straw because of the stamp burned on the inside of the crown. Yes, I did know they actually come from Ecuador.

Listen, dude, Cam Newton makes football money; he can afford a personal milliner to custom make his hats.

Yes, we can steam clean and reshape here in store. No extra cost.

I know the movies show guys holding their hats by the crown. They’re wrong.

 

There are different grades of straw quality, Panama included; honestly, crushable Panama’s are outside the price range for most of our cliental.

If you really want that style, Keith and James carries the next best thing. Their prices start at $450.

I- no. No, we can’t do anything if you’ve put the hat in the washing machine. Steam can’t fix that.

Look, if you want to ruin that hat before the end of the season, that’s you’re business. I’m just trying to  help you maintain your investment and avoid a split crown.

 

Found a winner? Excellent.

Would you like to wear it out or shall I put it in a bag?

We have white gift boxes for free, but the round hatboxes cost extra.

The 20% off code is only valid for first time purchases online, it will not work in stores.

Refunds are good up to 10 days after purchase, store credit is offered up to 20. Hold on to your receipt.

 

No, we do not offer senior discounts.

Military discounts are only offered on Veteran’s Day.

No, we do not have a customer appreciation discount, but here’s where you can email HQ about it.

No, you cannot have the X Discount; X hasn’t worked here in four years.

No, you cannot not have my employee discount.

Your receipt is in the bag/you’re all set/we’re closing in ten minutes.

Have a great evening!

 

“Buskers”

 

The guitarist, first and last. Freebird and Hendrix soared into the night sky while you waited on the sidewalk for change. I listened as you improved. I listened as you declined. It kept pace with my happiness and dissatisfaction in turn.

The drummer next, an unpleasant surprise each time. Too many hard sounds, too often unexpected. It fell short of being music and I judged you for it. Your audiences were too big to ignore but too small to spread joy. Did you even feel it? Happiness in your playing? Or were you as empty and yearning as me?

The singer. Phoebe Buffet incarnate. If you’d sung Smelly Cat, I would’ve turned down the radio. You only came with the Saturday morning farmers market. One more thing I was too poor to enjoy. There for the taking but still out of reach. I could hear you, out there in the sun, doing something you liked, critics be damned. I stood at a register and ached.

I only heard the piper twice. He came at twilight, both times, with the square empty and silent behind him. Generally speaking, bagpipes are not a romantic instrument. And yet. Did you play for the harbor, that mass of salty sick water we love and desecrate? Or for the drunks in the taverns, those young gods whose patronage floats this old city. Maybe you played for me. A gift of magic on dreary nights. I like to think that.

The guitarist, first and last. I escaped. I didn’t hear you play that last shift. I hope you escape too.


I quit one of my jobs last month. It was long overdue, but I tend to stay in bad situations longer than I should, provided they help me keep the lights on and the pantry full (see: my entire employment history). I could go on forever about the store and the company and what I loved about it and why I came to hate it, but I have better things to write. And there comes a point where all retail stories blend together. So here are some melodramatic poems instead. If you live in Baltimore, you can probably figure out where I worked. If you wanna gossip, hmu on the twitter (@drowsyreaper, as always).

The good news is I will have way more time to devote to writing (at least until my other job becomes full-time) and I will finally finish This House of Bones!(!!!!!!) My schedule this year has been pretty cray-cray. I actually went through my calendar for the whole year and starting in February, I’ve been working every day of the week, often with double shifts between jobs, and with one day off a month. So yeah, I’m actually pretty damn pleased with my productivity considering.

Finally, I’m probably going to start doing more of these midnight writer posts. I used to really enjoy them back in the day, and some of those old ideas evolved into fun, fuller concepts. It’s neat to see what creative idiocy my brain coughs up in the middle of the night.

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VII.

An Abridged History of Michael Constantine

Compiled and presented by his youngest daughter, Fin Constantine

 

Michael Constantine was born in 1968 to Luciano and Lucia Constantino. The American born son of Italian immigrants had a completely normal upbringing and nothing interesting happened, so let’s skip to the good stuff.

Mike was pretty popular in high school, and he looked a little like Al Pacino back then, so he did alright with the ladies. He did really alright the summer of 1986 and got into a sort of thing with the lead singer of this Heart cover band, Val Ironside. Then she left town with another band. He started his senior year of high school and began dating a junior, Sofia Lavelle.

They’d grown up in the same neighborhood. Even if they weren’t friends, they knew each other’s reputation – Mike, cocky, cool guy who always went to the best parties; Sofia, smart but kinda spooky, like you were at a job interview and she was evaluating you and you just couldn’t catch a break. And of course, because it was the 80’s and everyone was watching John Hughes, they decided it must be love.

They kind of knew it wasn’t. Mike liked that she was weird and made him more interesting by proxy. Especially when she was so pretty. And Sofia had her own reasons.

They survived as a couple for one year, and then kept at it another. And since they made it that far, why not get married?

Mike was doing whatever it was that aspiring cops in Baltimore do before they start police academy. Sofia took business classes at the community college and read through the poetry catalog at the Enoch Pratt and wondered if she’d made a mistake.

By 1990, Mike was cheating and Sofia was confidently Not In Love but also not sure of what to do next. Not that it mattered, because in 1990, after what should’ve been a perfunctory anniversary dinner, I was conceived.

I was born one a cold, bright morning, February 18, 1991, Serafina Magdalena Constantine. Sofia loved me with every mote of her being. Sources are unclear as to Mike’s feelings, but he didn’t pass out or run screaming, which was taken as a positive.

Then, in April, Val Ironside showed up at his doorstep with twin 3 year-old daughters. She said they were his. Mike did not expect this. He did not expect Sofia and Val to get along so well. He did not expect them to start co-mothering his infant daughter. He did not expect to find twin toddlers with his eyes and hair watching Sesame Street on his pullout sofa. And he definitely did not expect his mother to already know about it.

He would learn over the coming weeks that years before, Val had come to his mother’s door asking to see him. Lucia had decided to act in her son’s best interest – her son who was a good boy and would never stoop to fornicate with trash – and ‘sent the little harlot packing.’ And that had seemingly put an end to that forever. No need to tell Mike. He was a good boy, after all.

But then Val had seen a news program about DNA in paternity testing. And since there was no doubt about Mike being the dad, and as she didn’t believe in virgin conception outside of sharks and some species of frogs, she quit her latest band, cashed in some favors, and took her girls back to Baltimore. The noble goal was to let Mike know he was a dad and get his name on their birth certificates. Hopefully figure out some child support and maybe a visitation schedule if he was interested. The petty goal was to get the results and shove them down Lucia Constantino’s throat until she choked.

(Side note: Nonna had contentious relationships with all of her son’s partners. When she died, Val and Sofia only attended her funeral to be sure Lucia really was dead. There, they discovered no less than three other ex-girlfriends who’d attended for the same reason. They still do a Christmas/Hanukah card exchange every year.)

Sofia and Val were not unsympathetic to Mike’s plight. But there was a baby (me) to keep alive and two toddlers determined to test the limits of their mortality (honestly, something they still do during certain phases of the moon). Mike was a grown-up who didn’t need any supervision to shit, sleep, or survive. And anyway, Mike had fled the apartment for his mother’s house. Where Lucia then spent several weeks successfully talking him out of taking the paternity test. It wasn’t until Val threatened to get a court order and Sofia reminded him of how that might look on his record when he applied to the BCPD that he finally took the test.

A week or two later, a letter arrived stating the obvious. Artemis and Holly were his daughters.

Family lore does not say what happened in the immediate aftermath of this news, but here are undisputed events that followed.

Sofia and Mike got divorced.

Sofia got uncontested full custody of me.

Sofia and Val, henceforth to be known as The Moms, decided to flee Baltimore with their daughters like the devil was after them.

Mike did not put up a fight.

Three years later he, or more likely Lucia, decided that actually, he might like to see his daughters every now and then. Thus began a yearly summer pilgrimage to Baltimore. My sisters and I would sleep each night in the tiny apartment Mike had once shared with my mother, and then spend breakfast through dinner with Nonna. For four to eight weeks. Every summer.

Memories of these trips vary from sister to sister, ranging from meh to hellish, but the overall impression we all had was that our time could be better spent elsewhere.

Artemis refused to go back when she was 11 and so the visits stopped. Nonna died the next year anyway, so it was kind of a moot point. No one ever mentioned resuming them ever again.

Mike inherited the house, rented it to a buddy, and then moved to the Midwest. Kansas or Oklahoma. Someplace with more cornfields than people. He was named chief of some backwater police force for a few years. Gifted the position from a former boss. The pressure must’ve gotten to him. About a year after my own accident, the Mom’s told me he’d been hospitalized. Holly, fourteen and awful, said he’d snapped and was in the looney bin. I didn’t really care either way. I don’t know if that makes me worse, but it’s how I felt.

And now I’m living with him.

What a weird fucking life.


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VI.

To: Artemis Constantine <iwillshootyou@archer.com>

From: Fin Constantine <theend218@forge.net>

Subject: Here

got here ok. my phone is a loss, like you expected. going shopping with dad this weekend for a new one. get this. he got me a computer. an entire computer. with the buttons and the screen and the beep boop. he even has wifi. also the house is practically a museum. we could give literal tours. ‘and here is the traditional dwelling of a first generation italian american grandmother. for a fun activity, kids can count the number of crucifixes and sacred heart paintings!’

can you let the moms know everything’s okay? i’m gonna call them when i get my new phone. i just have some questions about dad? i never really asked before and now i’m living with him and i wanna know where i stand.

ok, bedtime. love you, miss mouth. remember that climate change may expose shallow graves faster than ever before, so plan your murders carefully. consider composting for a better tomorrow.

fin ❤

 

To: Fin Constantine <theend218@forge.net>

From: Artemis Constantine <iwillshootyou@archer.com>

Subject: RE: Here

You utter troll. You trash goblin. Call me. Now. I demand live reporting and a sacrifice of insomnia.

❤ ❤


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V.

Mike Constantine still lived in his mother’s house.

That shouldn’t have been surprising. It was his childhood home, it was paid for, and it was a sight better than the apartment he’d lived in when Fin was a kid.

Except that even eight years after her death, it was still obviously Lucia Constantino’s house.

The exterior was unremarkable. It looked like any one of its’ neighbor rowhouses. Marble steps lead up to narrow, two story red brick edifice. The screen door had a silhouette of a horse-drawn buggy on it, as did four other houses on the block. The difference was in the details, and the details, Fin thought to herself, were tragic.

Her Nonna’s flower boxes were gone. The once pristine marble stoop looked like it hadn’t been scrubbed once since her death, a weekly chore Fin and her sisters had been regularly corralled into helping with.

And yet her breath caught painfully when she stepped inside.

The first floor was a time capsule. The same family pictures hung against familiar blue and white pinstriped wallpaper. The living room was still cluttered with china cabinets and Nonna’s sprawling collection of porcelain figures – animals, angels, ceramic flower baskets, and romantic figures in period costumes. The couch was new, as was the flat screen television. But the green rug edged in roses that spread between them was the same.

The dining room was similarly unchanged. Too many cabinets, filled with dining sets that were never used. A too large table that dreamed of a bigger family. Her dad was obviously using it as a make-shift office. Papers and stacks of folders covered the table top, and a cork board hung on the far wall: Fin thought there might’ve been a painting of the Last Supper hanging there last time she visited.

The kitchen was the most changed, but all that meant was upgraded appliances. The floor was still checkered black and white tile. The cabinets and drawers were still a cheerful buttercup yellow. The door to the basement was chained shut as it always had been, but Mike assured her that it too was unchanged. The washer and dryer were still down there, and the Christmas nativity the sisters had always insisted on playing with like a peculiar dollhouse. A few more boxes had moved down there over the years, but that was all.

Father and daughter stood together at the back door and surveyed the yard. It was a small, cement covered rectangle of land. Always had been, as far as Fin could remember, but there were pictures in the Constantine family album of green grass and a honeysuckle bush. The only green to be found now was Pop-pop’s old tool shed/garage cowering in the far corner, and the scraggly climbing roses that clung to it. The shed had always been that hideous shade of avocado, painted so in a superstitious effort to ward off Nonna and her meddling. As if ugliness alone could thwart her.

Fin had always loved the sad, stooped building for that reason, though it had been locked up for most of her life. She loved it a little more when Mike slid a key across the kitchen table to her and said the shed was hers.

“For your art,” he said. “Your moms said some of your projects are better done out of doors. And there’s nothing in the shed but your Pop-pop’s tools and stuff he knew better than to bring around your Nonna. You can use whatever you want.”

“Cool,” she said. And that was that.

Upstairs, the bathroom had been entirely redone. Mike still slept in his childhood bedroom at the back of the house, though a quick glance inside revealed there was nothing childish within.

For a moment, Fin feared there was something wrong with the master bedroom. Maybe there was damage he’d forgotten to mention. A leaky roof. A collapsed roof! Termites! Maybe Fin would have to sleep in the small middle room. It had been a sewing room, once upon a time, then a nursery when Fin was little. But what was big enough for a toddler and what was big enough for a teenager were very different metrics, even if Fin was short for her age.

The worry was for naught. The middle room was full near to bursting. Furniture and boxes and picture frames – the Last Supper was probably somewhere in there – and all the other debris of a life packed up and put away. There was no chance Fin was expected to sleep there.

Nonna’s room was the only place left.

Fin had only been in her grandmothers’ room a handful of times. It sat at the front of the house, looking south over Patterson Park. The view alone was a temptation. All those trees seen from above. Nonna valued her privacy, though, and the girls had the rest of the house to make trouble in. But any closed door demanded exploration, and so Fin had tried to sneak in over the years.

She remembered it. The wide bay window, curtained with white lace that softened the afternoon light to something dreamy.  The window seat covered in little cushions she knew Nonna had sewn herself. Powder blue walls hung with religious paintings and photos of Italy. An Art Deco waterfall bedroom set. The full bed stretched into the middle of the room, facing the view and the sun. A thick Latin bible on the vanity. Dried flowers and Catholic red glass votives sat at the feet of the Virgin. The scent of baby powder and roses. Nonna sitting in the window, ready to scold her for intruding.

She remembered it all.

Fin took a breath and saw the room.

The walls were white and bare and blinding in the afternoon summer sun. A wrought iron double bed was pressed in corner to her right. A dresser, wardrobe, and two desks lined the walls, all of them mismatched. Boxes she’d packed and labeled in New Orleans were stacked in the middle of the floor. And by the window, her easel stood open and waiting.

Something unclenched inside. The rest of the house was a weird, distorted walk through a half remembered childhood. This room, her room, was a blank canvas. She could work with that.

Fin brought up her bags and set to work. If she was going to live here for the next year, she had best start settling in now.

Later, with her stuff halfway unpacked and exhaustion setting in, Fin thought about asking Mike about the upstairs arrangements – why he stayed in his old room and not the larger master bedroom, with the wide window and beautiful view – but that would just lead to more questions. Like why was the house so unchanged? She knew he’d rented it out for a few years after Nonna died; there was no way the renters had just lived in Nonna’s stuff, had they? And how had he decided what to leave out and what to pack away?

But she’d been in Baltimore less than a day, and already this was the most time Fin had spent with her father in nearly ten years. She could ask him later. Much later. Baby steps.

For the moment, she would enjoy the pizza he’d ordered and the buzz of police radio chatter that blessedly filled the silence between them. All awkward family bonding, Fin decided, should happen over cheese and bread and someone else talking.

Of course, that was when Mike pushed away from the table. “I’ve gotta go. Gotta put some face hours in at the precinct tonight. Do you need anything before I go? You know how the tv works? Know where the food is? I left the number for my cell by the house phone if there’s an emergency. Oh, and I got a computer for you from work – we’re upgrading and getting rid of some older desktops. Didn’t want to set it up until you get your room sorted the way you like, but I can move it in now if you know where you want it. Might put your moms at ease if they know they can reach you without calling me.”

“Sounds good,” Fin assured him. “I’ll start hooking that up tonight. Um, I can’t think of anything else I need. I guess I’ll just call you if I have questions about anything?”

“Alright. We can get you a new cell phone this weekend. Those detectives said your phone was no good?”

Fin nodded and stuffed another slice of pizza in her mouth.

Together, they cleaned up the kitchen and moved the bulky computer from the corner of the dining room it was hidden in to one of Fin’s desks. Fin had positioned them on opposite walls: the one on the left wall for the computer and school work, the desk on the right wall for small art and tools. Mark wrote out the wifi password and showed her the router downstairs. With nothing left to do, he spent a moment hovering uncomfortably near the door.

“Right,” he mumbled and shuffled his feet. “Well. Don’t burn the house down while I’m out. Don’t stay up too late. No wild parties. I should be back after midnight.”

“Have a good night,” she replied absently, studiously  unknotting a tangle of wires. There was a jingle of keys, the sound of heavy footsteps moving, one last awkward ‘bye’ half muttered from the bottom of the stairs, and the opening and closing of the front door.

And just like that, the house was quiet, and Fin was well and truly alone for the first time in months and months and months.

It didn’t feel like she thought it would.  Not the way it used to.

The silence was an open field, waiting for combat. Everything she couldn’t see, a hiding place for enemies. There was no one to shield her. No cannon fodder. And God, what a stupid thing to think. She hurried downstairs, grabbed a pizza and 2 liter from the fridge, the house phone out of its’ cradle, and shut herself up in her new room.

She still had a life to set up.


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