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Blood & Bourbon

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Celia I, Chapter III
Good Counsel

“I would not suffer cruelties and indignities perpetrated against me or those close to me to pass without consequence.”
Payton Underwood

Monday afternoon, 24 November 2008

Celia: It isn’t hard to track down a public figure, especially one like a judge. It’s even easier with the last name Flores, which Celia uses to her advantage when she makes the call to book the appointment to see the Honorable Judge Payton T. Underwood. She isn’t sure why she expected to meet in a courtroom—too many movies, probably—but it’s decidedly not a courtroom that she is shown to when she gets off the elevator at the Criminal District Court in Mid-City.

She’s dressed for the occasion, in an army green knee-length pleated skirt in and black sweater. It’s warm indoors, especially with the sheer black tights she wears beneath the skirt, but she faces the heat rather than risk somehow offending this grandmother she hasn’t seen in some time.

The receptionist had given her the office number, and Stephen gave her talking points, but it’s Maxen’s voice that she hears in her head. Stupid. Intellectual limits.

She takes a breath, pausing outside the door, then lifts her hand to knock.

GM: “Come in,” sounds an older woman’s terse voice.

Celia: Celia opens the door and steps inside. She shuts it behind her.

“Good morning, Grandmother.”

GM: The office is a somber affair. There’s full bookshelves of those identical-looking legal volumes that one finds in many lawyer’s offices, an oak desk, paperwork over that beside a phone and computer, and an American flag in the room’s corner. Celia can make out a few family photos on the desk too. There’s also a few framed and very old-looking pictures of other people who look like judges and attorneys that Celia doesn’t recognize.

Celia’s maternal grandmother is a 60-something woman with curled but short iron gray hair and a firm jawline with a certain tightness behind its smiles that suggests they are earned rather than freely given. She’s dressed in a conservative dark skirtsuit with a maroon scarf and pearl earrings.

She raises an eyebrow at seeing who her visitor is.

“Good morning, Celia.”

She indicates a chair by the desk. She doesn’t ask why Celia is showing up at her office during court hours, but the unspoken expectation is there. The judge’s time is valuable.

Celia: Celia crosses the room to take the offered chair. She smooths her skirt as she seats herself, trying not to fidget. She feels as if the judge can see right through her. She’s pretty sure that’s her job, actually, though Celia isn’t here to be sentenced.

“Thank you for taking time this morning to see me, Grandmother. I’ll get to the point. I wanted to talk to you about Mom. And the divorce.”

GM: The iron-haired judge gives her a look like she’s just brought up a past offender with a very, very long criminal record.

“These are my work hours, Celia. Personal matters are best discussed at one’s personal residence. I have a home.”

“You may ask me about your mother and her divorce. But if someone else with non-personal business requires my time, I will ask you to leave.”

Has received instruction… is still incapable… that makes her stupid, sounds her father’s voice.

Celia: Celia straightens her spine. She tries to ignore the voice in her head. Stephen had helped her with what to say. They had practiced.

“With respect, ma’am, this is only a personal matter insofar as it relates to a member of our family.”

She brought a pen and notebook, which she consults now, flipping it open on her lap to the relevant page.

“Maxen Flores was awarded custody for his five children following the divorce to Diana Flores in 2003, despite Louisiana’s history of awarding joint custody. Diana was awarded no alimony for her time spent married to Maxen.” Celia looks up from her notes. “Why?”

GM: The judge’s lips press into a thin line.

“Because Maxen Flores and Diana Flores requested both of those things.”

Celia: “Oh.”

She hadn’t expected that. Her mother didn’t want her? The wind has gone from her sails.

“…in, um, in cases with… with a history of domestic violence… isn’t custody generally given to the… nonviolent parent?”

GM: Her grandmother’s lips remain in that same thin line.

“No charges of domestic violence were ever filed against either parent.”

Celia: “What if there were new charges?” she asks quietly.

GM: “That would merit a judge’s consideration were a petition filed to modify a prior parental custody order.”

Celia: “And what… proof is needed? Just a claim? Or does the parent need to be charged with something?”

GM: “The best interests of the children are a judge’s sole concern when making child custodial decisions. The petitioner must demonstrate that a material change in circumstances for the children warrants a change in custody. Any and all inculpatory evidence would be considered. Charges filed by the district attorney would be lent greater weight than a private individual’s claims.”

Celia: “Do best interests include which parent has greater income?”

Celia’s tone is as mild as she can make it. Her knuckles are white around the pen in her hand. Her leg jiggles up and down.

“If the—if the children were moved, would the custodial parent be given support payments by the… other?”

GM: “In a Louisiana physical custody case, both parent’s incomes are added together, then matched to a schedule of basic child support obligations that determines how much per month the children are entitled to. A parent’s income, consequently, is a less influential factor in determining a child’s best interests than some may assume. Courts are more likely to consider housing arrangements, school attendance, and other material and social circumstances.”

Celia: She knows some of this—or at least Stephen had told her some of this when they’d looked it up—but the words still don’t mean anything the second time around. She hadn’t wanted to ask Stephen to explain. She hadn’t wanted to look stupid.

“So if… if Parent A has a better house and income and can provide better school, that looks better than if Parent B has a worse house. Even if Parent A abuses hi—their children?”

GM: “Those circumstances are relative. It is a question of ‘how much’ more than a simple yes or no. Including ‘how much’ inculpatory evidence is available for the judge’s consideration.”

Celia: Celia is tired of mincing words. She isn’t a lawyer.

“He hits us. What do I need to do to get them out of there so Mom has custody? And why… why didn’t she want it to begin with? She knew what he was.”

She knows she has veered into personal territory. She drops her gaze to the notebook in her lap. So much for being professional.

GM: “Because your mother is a spineless coward,” her grandmother answers tersely.

So much for being professional.

Or mincing words.

Celia: Celia’s lips will never be thin enough to pull off the severe line that her grandmother does, but she flattens them all the same.

“She is,” she agrees. “You’re not. I can’t imagine you raised her to be this way. And yet she turned into this shell of a person after her marriage to Maxen. Doesn’t that speak to what he is?” Celia leans forward in her seat. “After all, he kept you from her.”

GM: Somehow, that line grows even thinner.

“Your mother kept herself from me. She is a grown adult who made her own choices.”

“Your father does not have the power to turn her into a different person. Merely to reveal what sort of person she is under adversity.”

“There has always been too much of my husband in her.”

Celia: “She cowers at the mention of him. She lives in poverty. My mother may not be the best role model, but no woman does that to themselves. That is systemic, daily abuse. Beaten and broken. Like a dog.”

GM: “No woman becomes that overnight. I have attempted, repeatedly, to help my daughter. It has been her decision to reject that help.”

The criminal judge’s voice isn’t tired. It is past that: the simple acceptance of fact.

Celia: “She rejected my help, too.” Celia does not want to admit how much that stings. “I don’t know what my options are now.”

GM: “Your mother’s involvement is not required to file a police report, nor for the the district attorney’s office to pursue charges.”

Celia: “She would be the parent receiving custody. If she says she doesn’t want them… there’s no point, is there? My options are go after him myself, and as an adult child I’m essentially entitled to nothing, or walk away.”

Somehow, she turns it into a question. She fixes her grandmother with a look.

GM: Payton sighs.

“It is one matter for the DA’s office to pursue criminal charges and a separate matter for you to petition for modification to a parental custody order. The former would merit a judge’s consideration when reviewing the latter. But the parent who desires custody must file the petition. Otherwise, your siblings’ only avenue is your father’s loss of custody through incarceration, which is unlikely.”

Celia: In other words, there’s nothing Celia can do for her siblings until her mom pulls her head out of her ass.

“I see. And… if you were in my position, what would you do?”

GM: “Were I in your position, I would not suffer cruelties and indignities perpetrated against me or those close to me to pass without consequence, and would pursue legal action against the perpetrator. I would do so without the expectation that cowards would find their backbone.”

Celia: “Yes, ma’am. I see your point. Thank you.”

She closes the notebook, pen still tucked inside.

“I appreciate your assistance and… illumination on this matter. And if you don’t mind me taking up your office hours on a personal question..?”

GM: “Ask,” Celia’s grandmother replies.

Celia: “Mom’s living situation is… questionable considering her position at McGehee. Do you know why…?”

GM: “I am unfamiliar with your mother’s present living situation. I would be inclined to suspect further cowardice and poor personal choices on her part, as well as refusal to seek help.”

Celia: “Oh. Well. Good. I thought you were going to tell me she had to pay him child support or something.”

GM: There’s little of the assurance Celia may be seeking in her grandmother’s eyes.

“As I have said, I am unaware of your mother’s living situation, which includes her finances. That fact would not be a surprise to me.”

Payton seems to leave the matter at that, however, as she picks up her desk’s phone and dials a number.

“My granddaughter has an incident of domestic violence to report,” she says without preamble.

“I want you to file the report, ensure it is read, and ensure the follow-up investigation is conducted by the Domestic Violence Unit. As well as to conduct an informal preliminary investigation yourself.”

There’s indistinct noise from the other end of the line.

“Yes. Yes. I will owe you a favor,” says Celia’s grandmother.

There’s another pause. Perhaps some more noise.

“Whenever she stops by. Her name is Celia Flores.”

There’s another brief pause. Celia’s grandmother hangs up and turns back to her.

“When you are ready to file your report, go to 715 South Broad Street and ask for Richard Gettis or his friend Lucky. You will not find him a friendly man, but he is afraid of nothing. He will not be intimidated by your father.”

Celia: Well, Celia supposes, there is nothing quite like jumping into the deep end by filing a domestic violence report. There’s a lump in her throat that she tries to swallow.

Everything is happening very, very quickly. But the vague outlines of a plan are beginning to form in her mind. She crosses one leg over the other and smooths down her skirt.

“Thank you.”

GM: “You are welcome, Celia.”

Celia: “One last question, Grandmother. If the worst should happen and I am kicked out, my status as an adult means I have very little legal, ah, recourse or entitlement. Right?”

GM: “If you truly feel your father’s present behavior constitutes abuse, I would consider leaving his home to be ‘the best’ rather than ‘the worst’ possible outcome for you.”

“As an adult, you are correct that you are no longer entitled to financial support from your father. However, if you are attending college full-time and unmarried, you may still qualify as a financial dependent of your mother’s.”

“If your father were made to pay child support for your siblings, he would also be obligated to financially provide for you until your college graduation.”

Celia: “What about my trust fund?”

GM: “The structures and legal dimensions of trusts can vary significantly. Some trusts can be revoked by the parent. Others cannot. I do not know the particulars of yours.”

Celia: “Do you know who I would ask…? I just… I am hoping for the best. But I would be a fool to go in blind.”

GM: “You would be. I would speak to the trustee of your fund, whoever that may be. It will not be your father. He or she is likely an attorney, accountant, trust company, or perhaps a family friend. Your mother may know more.”

Celia: “Thank you. I truly… I truly appreciate it. For what it’s worth, I hope that you and I can bridge the gap between us that my mother did not tend and Maxen took an axe to. I admire your steel.”

Celia rises.

GM: “I hope so as well, Celia, and hope to see those same qualities that you admire reflected in you.”

The judge offers a faint smile as she adds,

“I like the skirt, by the way. There are worse things to have inherited from your mother than her fashion instincts.”

Celia: “Like her taste in men?” Celia smiles. “I hope she comes around. You deserve a daughter worthy of the name.”

She dips her head in acknowledgement. “Enjoy your afternoon, Grandmother. I’ll let you know how things go.”

Monday evening, 24 November 2008

GM: Celia’s mom calls her shortly later to ask, “Would you like to have dinner again tonight, sweetie? We can finish up those asparagus twists, and maybe make somethin’ else to go with them.”

Her mom doesn’t bring up any of the topics discussed last night, though her hug when she greets Celia at the door (she usually asks her daughter to take public transportation over with Daddy’s money to save on gas) seems longer and tighter.

She’s also baking cookies again. She mentions how, “Maybe we can practice some dance stretches too, if you like… somethin’ to work off the calories from all that chocolate. I don’t think we’ve done stretches together in a while, and there’s just so many really fun and goofy ones.”

She talks a lot. She talks about everything except last night.

“Let me show you this one…” she says as she lays chest-down on the small bedroom’s carpeted floor. “It’s called the locust pose. It looks hard, but I can still do it with my leg, and you can do it too with a lil’ practice. Take a look:”

“Tah-daaah!” Celia’s mom smiles up at her.

Celia: Celia can think of a quite a few uses for that pose. She warms up her muscles with a few stretches, glad she wore leggings rather than something tight, and lays on the floor next to her mother. She pushes her butt off the floor with her arms, stretches her hands out to stabilize her core, and begins the process of bending her legs.

How,” she grits out, “is it possible that you can still do that?” Her toes are nowhere near her head.

GM: “It just takes practice, sweetie, that’s all,” her mom assures her. “Here, I’ll hold you. Get your legs used to bein’ in that position with some help, and you’ll be able to do it on your own…”

If Celia doesn’t stop her, they spend the entire evening on dance stretches, asparagus wraps, chicken pot pie (“I just love this recipe! Perfect on a nice cold winter night!”) and chocolate chip cookies.

Celia: Celia does stop her. Eventually. She enjoys the stretching, the cooking, the cookies… but she knows that she needs to have this conversation with her mother.

“Mom,” she asks as she helps clean the table, “can I ask you something? Something, um, sensitive?”

GM: Her mom doesn’t reply for several moments as she turns on the sink faucet. Running water fills the silence.

“Do… do we need to, sweetie? We’ve had such a nice evening.”

Celia: “And I’d like to continue to have a nice life, Momma.”

GM: Diana’s shoulders seem to slump a bit as she scrubs the dishes. She’s always hated arguing.

“All right, if you’re sure.”

Celia: “McGehee pays you well, right? I mean… enough to live comfortably? And… and you do the private lessons, so that helps. And I know that you got the car, and are helping with tuition, but… how come…?” Celia trails off, gesturing toward the apartment at large.

GM: “I… McGehee doesn’t pay that well, sweetie… you don’t go into teaching if you want to make lots of money. And you know I didn’t have any money after the divorce.”

Celia: Celia fixes her mom with a look.

“They don’t pay enough to afford an okay apartment?”

GM: Celia’s mom gives a sigh as she turns to face her daughter, who’s now standing next to her at the sink.

“Sweetie, it is what it is. We’ve been able to make it work, haven’t we, with beauty school and the car?”

The light by the sink emphasizes the bags under her eyes.

Celia: “I’m not concerned about me, I’m concerned about you. You’re… tired. All the time. Running yourself ragged. And if you… if you need something… or if you’re in trouble… or… you’re my mom. I shouldn’t have to worry about you being able to feed yourself because I wanted to go to cos school.”

GM: Celia’s mother gives a wan smile and touches her cheek.

“It’s worth it, sweetie. For you. I want you to do what you love. To follow your dream.”

“This isn’t goin’ to be forever. I’ll cut back on the hours at the dance studio, and the lessons, once things settle down. Heck, I’ll probably just only do the studio durin’ summer months, when I’m not at McGehee anyway.”

Celia: “Do you know who controls the trusts Dad set up for us?”

GM: “Oh. That’s… the answer is debt, at least so far as me,” Celia’s mom answers with another sigh.

“Medical debt. I was… in the hospital for a very long time. And my treatment was, I guess pretty expensive. A lot of my time there… is a blur past all the drugs, and… other things, I guess. But your father dropped me from his insurance, so I didn’t have any money to pay.”

Celia: “…but the… but it happened when you were married.”

GM: Celia’s mother gives a hapless shrug.

“I went to charity programs, my doctor recommended those, but it was a really big bill. They just about had to get the paddles out for my heart after I saw how many 0’s.” She flashes a humorous smile, or at least an attempt at one. It falls utterly flat.

“I, well, couldn’t pay. I just didn’t have the money. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the money. So the hospital sold my debt to a collections agency.”

Celia: “Who controls my trust?” Celia asks again.

GM: Her mom briefly closes her eyes, but instead answers, “They are not nice people, Celia. Do not ever let your debts get sold to a third party. If that happens, you’re really up… brown creek without a paddle.”

“The agency sued me, for not bein’ able to pay, and of course I couldn’t afford any lawyer. So they got a court order that garnishes my wages. That means I don’t really make the same money that other teachers at McGehee do. The school withholds a chunk of my paycheck and mails it off to the collection agency.”

Celia: “But that’s not fair. He did that to you. Why isn’t he paying? How can he just… just kick you off his insurance like that?”

GM: “Well… there’s out of pocket costs, copays, deductibles, and all that… I guess he just didn’t want to deal with it.” Celia’s mother gives another hapless little shrug.

Celia: “He put you there! Of course he should have to deal with it!

GM: There’s another, even more hapless little shrug. “It’s not fair, I know, but… it’s what it is.”

“Your father was always in control of our finances. The bank accounts, credit cards, all that, they were in his name, or he’d set it up so I didn’t really have control, I was just allowed to withdraw an allowance.”

Celia: “It’s bullshit.”

GM: “It’s just… how it is, sweetie. On the law books, at least, I don’t think it’s legal, but it’s men like your dad who write the book and… well, throw it at people. Like the sayin’ goes.”

Celia: Another thing she’ll need to look into.

“He doesn’t control the trusts though, right? I mean it’s in my name and I can talk to someone about it? Find out the details?”

GM: “Sweetie, why do you want to know?” Celia’s mother asks uncomfortably.

Celia: “Because I want to be prepared in case anything happens. I don’t want to be up, um, brown creek.”

GM: “Well… say! I don’t think I showed you this pose,” Celia’s mom exclaims, turning off the sink and sitting back down on the bedroom floor.

“You might enjoy takin’ any yoga classes they have at Tulane, the practice is really good for dance.”

“So for this one, it takes a bit more strength in your arms, and the trick to pullin’ it off is…”

Celia: “Mom.”

GM: “Oh, forget explainin’, I’ll just show you and hold it! Best way to learn, anyways!”

Celia: “Momma. Do you want this to be my life? Because that might happen if you don’t help me. And I’ll have to—to sell my body to get by. I know someone who did that. It was very sad. Is that what you want for me?”

GM: “Tah-daaa-oww!” Celia’s mom’s leg spasms, her arms give out, and she hits the floor in a heap.

“Celia, please get my—owww!—pain meds!”

Celia: “Mom!” Celia is across the room in an instant to help her mom up, lifting and untangling the woman gently. She gets her settled and moves into the bathroom to raid the area behind the mirror for the orange plastic bottle. Bottles? She doesn’t know which does what and grabs them all, then gets back to her mom’s side with a glass of water.

“Mom, are you okay? Where does it hurt? What can I do?” She hovers, wringing her hands.

GM: Her mom pops the meds, downs the water, winces, and rubs her leg.

“It’s… it’s my leg, sweetie… it always is…”

“It’ll pass, after a bit…”

Celia: Of course it is. That was a dumb question. Celia sits herself down in front of her mom to take a look. As if she’s a doctor. As if the two weeks they spent on massage in cos school will help.

“Let me see.”

GM: Celia’s mom is wearing opaque tights under her dress, evidently in anticipation of their practice together. Celia doesn’t think she’s ever seen her mother wear a pair of pants: her dad prefers women to “dress like women.” Her mom lets her knead the muscles along her thigh for a while, sighs that “oh, that’s startin’ to feel better,” and finally admits with another sigh,

“It’s… Paul Simmons. He’s a banker and accountant. I think he works for Whitney Bank.”

“But… he and your dad are friends, sweetie, and he knows who butters his bread. He… won’t help you. I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t do anything you’ll regret. Your trust is fine. You’re getting your money still, aren’t you?”

Celia: “I just want to know the terms, Momma,” Celia says as her fingers and palms work against her mom’s leg. “In case… the doctor..”

GM: “…have you practiced with the kit yet?”

“I know, I know, you didn’t want me to ask… I just worry, sweetie. I worry for you.”

Celia: “I didn’t want you to ask in front of Stephen,” Celia admits.

GM: “Oh. Yes. That’s very fair. In front of your boyfriend and all.”

Celia: “I like him. I don’t want him to think we’re crazy. Even though… you know.”

GM: “Well, here in the South we don’t hide our crazy, we parade in on the front porch and serve it a cocktail.” Her mom gives a faint smirk.

Celia: “But I need to know. If Dad finds out. What he’ll do. If I’m going to be… kicked out. Or…”

Her eyes move to her hands, frozen on her mom’s leg. Broken. She wants to know if she’ll be broken.

GM: The smirk instantly disappears as her mom’s eyes follow her hands.

She might wonder what the leg looks like under those tights.

“Celia… I don’t know.” Her mom’s voice is small. “Just that it’d be horrible. That you can’t let him know.”

Celia: “You think he’d do this? To his daughter?”

GM: “I… think it was always different for him. With a wife.”

“I think you would lose a lot of your freedom. I don’t know we’d still get to see each other…”

The sadness and fear on her mom’s face at that thought is plain.

Celia: “What freedom? He controls everything. What do you think he’d do to me if he knew I came here? If I was going to the other school? I hide everything. And I’m tired of living in fear.”

GM: “The freedom to see each other, sweetie! For you to have a boyfriend, go to cos school, wear makeup, see Batman movies! Believe me, there is a lot you can lose!”

The sadness is gone. It’s mostly just fear now.

“Maybe we should… we could pay for another doctor’s exam, to check your hymen. See if the kit fools another doctor, as a practice run. If it doesn’t, we’ll think of somethin’ else.”

Celia: “No.” Celia’s tone is firm. “I’m not going through that. Do you know what he does? He—he puts me on the table. On my back. And puts my feet in these stirrups, he calls them. To spread me open. And then uses his fingers and puts them inside of me, and like he… he feels around. With his hand. And he touched my button once. To check for feeling, he said, but it was… it was…”

Celia flushes. It’s what Stephen does now. Doctors aren’t supposed to do that, are they?

“I’m not doing that. No. Dad shouldn’t even have access to my medical records. I’m 19. I’m not a kid. That’s why I am checking the trust. To see if I block him from access if he can cut me off.”

GM: “Celia, please!” her mom begs. Even the mention that a doctor touched Celia’s ‘button’ doesn’t erase the fear in the woman’s eyes. “Please don’t make him angry!”

Celia: “Why does that status of my vagina make him angry?!”

GM: “I, I misspoke. But please, please, don’t do anything that would upset him, that’d rock the boat!”

Celia:Why? What do you know that I don’t? What is he going to do?”

GM: “I don’t know, Celia! That’s what scares me so much!” Her mom is starting to cry. “I don’t know if he’d lock you away forever, hurt you, kill you, or what!”

Celia: “I’m not staying there, Mom. I can’t.”

GM: Her mom clasps her hands. “Celia, please! It’ll get better, you’ll eventually get married, move out!”

Celia: “You’re right, Momma. I should ask Stephen if he’ll marry me so I can get out instead of doing something about it.”

GM: “That’s… you think he’d say yes…?”

She looks like she thinks that’s a good idea.

Celia: “Uh…” Celia hadn’t actually considered it before. “I… don’t know.”

GM: “You won’t want to do it right now,” her mom says, suddenly thoughtful. “You haven’t been together all that long and he’s… in a bit of shock, it feels like. Give him some more time.”

“And… oh, Celia, this makes me… what if you got pregnant? Do you think he’d want to support you and the baby, by gettin’ hitched?”

Celia: “We… use condoms, Mom. That’s not an issue. I’m not going to get pregnant.”

Oh my god what if I get pregnant?

“Should I start birth control?”

GM: “Well… it might be a good thing if you did get a bun in your oven…”

Celia: “Are you telling me to get pregnant and trap him into marriage?”

GM: Her mom looks away.

Celia: “…is that what you did?”

GM: “I…” Her mom looks uncertain. “It might have been… I know I really wanted a second, that I could be absolutely sure was his…”

“People don’t always think things through consciously, sweetie. Sometimes they just act on impulses they don’t even know they have.”

“But if you were to get pregnant, you’d get to keep your trust, your dad’s money, and you’d be movin’ in with Stephen. He seems like a nice boy, with a good career ahead of him. And you’ll want kids at some point. Would that be so bad, to start early?”

“You’d even be able to finish beauty school, before your due date.”

“I’d love to help, of course, with any baby. Don’t even worry about childcare.”

Celia: “I’m pretty sure Dad would know what happened if I suddenly got married and had a baby less than nine months later,” Celia points out.

GM: “You could definitely wait a bit, like I said.”

Celia: “It’s worth considering.”

Pretend she’s pregnant. Marry Stephen, keep her trust. Stage a miscarriage? Finish school. Be free without going up against her dad. Unless…

“When did it get bad? For you and him.”

GM: Her mom nods relievedly at her initial words.

“It was… oh, I suppose not that long after we moved to Audubon, sweetie.”

“After your dad was first elected and had all that new pressure.”

Celia: Blueberry pancakes. She can smell them. Taste them. The syrup is thick. Cloying. It makes her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth, now dry.


She clears her throat. She has so many questions.

“Was it gradual? Or all at once? Was he always so… controlling? Why did he decide to run?”

GM: “Well, I guess why does any man?” her mother asks with a smile that seems like it’s attempting to be humorous. “Your grandpa had held office before him, after all, so I guess he saw it as his birthright.”

“Things were always a little tense between them. Maybe he figured it would make his father proud. Maybe he thought it’d be our path to a better life. It certainly was…” her mom’s face dims. “As far as money, anyway.”

“I was a lil’ surprised at how young he decided to run, but his heart seemed set on that dream. And he’d helped me follow mine.”

“The… abuse,” her mom says the word delicately, “was more gradual than anythin’ else. All those new responsibilities, like I said.”

“And… our marriage did have problems, sweetie. Well, obviously, but ones you didn’t get to see as a kid. You know I got pregnant with you really early. I didn’t want to let it put my ballet career on hold. Dancers only get to enjoy it so many years, after all.”

“We went through a lot of nannies and babysitters, so I could do that. It wasn’t easy with five kids. And after y’all were out of diapers, I wanted to go to college. Production companies are more impressed by dancers with degrees, plus it’d let me have a career after I retired.”

“So, more childcare. Plus your dad and his family paid for my college after your grandmother, your maternal grandmother, wouldn’t. I always felt like your dad and his family had done so much for me.”

“All that on top of how… some part of me maybe knew, but didn’t want to acknowledge, how you weren’t his. And felt guilty about it. Like I was taking advantage of a good man.”

Celia: Celia wants to interrupt her mom at several points, but this is the most she has spoken about her father in some time. She presses her lips together to keep from jumping in, eyes on her mother’s leg where her hands still work across the muscles. She has no idea what she’s doing, but there are spots that feel more firm than others and coalesce into knobs of tautness, so that’s where her fingers move. She keeps kneading when she finally speaks up.

“When you say Grandfather… you mean the man who bought me Sugar Cube?”

GM: Her mom shakes her head. “I mean the man who raised your father.”

She gives a sigh as Celia’s hands continue to massage her leg. “Oh, that feels so good, sweetie… you’re really good at this.”

Celia: “Who is his real dad?”

GM: Her mom seems to pause at that question for a bit, but answers, “Jim Jameson. He’s a retired politician.”

Celia thinks she might have seen the ex-governor’s canceled reality show.

“Plus, you know, the pay for ballet dancers is terrible… at least here in Louisiana,” she fills in. “So I was always very dependent on your father and his family.” Her mom looks wistful. “When I was a little girl, I always dreamed about tryin’ out for the San Francisco or New York or London production companies. What the company here in New Orleans… well, everyone there definitely puts their hearts and souls into it, every ballerina does, because you certainly don’t go into ballet expectin’ to get rich, but this city is not where you perform if you want to make it really big.”

“That was my plan in high school, actually. I’d applied to colleges in all those cities… I even got accepted by a couple.”

“But kids meant I had to say goodbye to that dream. And I think some part of me might have blamed your father. We were just dumb kids foolin’ around who shoulda been more careful.”

She strokes Celia’s cheek. “I don’t regret havin’ you and your siblings, not at all, sweetie. You’ve been the lights of my life. I always, always wanted kids. But given the choice I’ll admit I’d have waited to become a mother.”

“And… with your father… I guess some part of me was blamin’ him for stealing my dream, even though I knew it was me too, while also being so grateful for all he was doing, how I still got to dance and do college even with five kids, and how he always worked so hard to provide for me, even if it wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted, and then there was how you might or might not have really been his, and how on some days…”

Her mother gives a short laugh. “I don’t even know what I’m gettin’ at, sweetie. There were a lot of very complicated emotions in my marriage.”

Celia: There isn’t an easy way for Celia to point out the error in her mother’s logic.

“You just told me that you wish you’d have waited to have kids. But you’re also telling me to go have a kid with Stephen so I can marry him and move out and still keep Daddy’s money. Mom, do you… I mean you recognize the folly there, right? If you had to do it all over again, you’d have waited. Moved on. Gone to a different city. That was your dream. And you’re telling me now to… to sabotage myself in order to play nice with him? I can dream, but only so big? Only so long as it doesn’t rock the boat? What do you think he’ll say to me when I tell him I want to open a salon?”

Celia shakes her head.

“This is why, Momma. This is why I have to get out. You should have gone off to dance. And I shouldn’t have to hide what I’m doing or who I’m dating or worry about being… locked in a tower.”

GM: Her mom’s face falters. “But do you want to open a salon here in the city, sweetie? I mean, I certainly don’t expect your dad will be thrilled, but… well, with your husband… it might be… you could alw…”

But something in Celia’s words seems to strike a chord with her mother. She trails off for a moment, the two of them still seated on the floor, then murmurs, “Oh, Celia… I gave you some very, very bad advice…”

She clasps her daughter’s hands. “The pregnancy idea. Don’t do it. You’ll poison it, sweetie, your relationship with Stephen. Your kids’ lives. No, no good fruit can come of poisoned seeds. I should know. I should… I should know…”

“I’m just… I’m just scared for you, baby…” Celia’s mom sniffs, then suddenly hugs her crushingly tight. “I don’t want to lose you… I don’t ever, ever want to lose you…”

Celia: Celia clings just as tightly to her mom. Something has shifted. The dam that was keeping her mom from spilling her truth has collapsed under this scrutiny. There’s a flutter inside of her stomach, her nerves getting the best of her, but she remembers her grandmother’s steel. She will be steel wrapped in velvet for her mother.

“Tell me,” she says softly.

GM: Her mom is crying again. “Oh, sweetie, you… you don’t even know… your father… the things… all the… your grandm… thinks I’m so weak… but she… oh, Celia…”

Her mother just clings to her for a while, then dully says,

“I don’t want you to be as scared as me.”

She slowly pulls back and looks her daughter in the eyes.

“I’ll… I’ll talk with the lawyer. Your boyfriend’s lawyer.”

Celia: “There’s something… deeper, isn’t there, Mom? Something else?” She doesn’t want to pry too hard. Not if her mother has agreed to finally speak with the lawyer. But she has to know.

GM: Her mother slowly shakes her head. “It… it doesn’t matter, sweetie… just… just reasons I’m scared…” Her mom’s face looks positively white. “But I’ll try. For you and the others. I’ll… I’ll try.”

Celia: “You got out, Momma. You don’t have to be scared anymore.”

GM: “I’ll pray you’re right, sweetie,” her mom says quietly.

“I’ll pray to God you’re right.”

Tuesday afternoon, 25 November 2008

GM: Celia decides it’s better not to waste any time while her mom still has nerve. She calls Stephen. He can’t introduce her to his father just yet (the federal prosecutor’s schedule is always busy), but he comes through with a law firm his family knows people at. He sets up an appointment and assures Celia’s mom that the first consultation is free. He sits down with the pair to hash out things they can bring to meeting: a notecard with lots of contact information, a “key facts” sheet pertaining to their case, and as much documentation and evidence as they can think of. Celia’s mom seems a bit intimidated by it all. Stephen assures her this is “all stuff your lawyer will ask you, we’re just giving you a head start.”

Celia’s mom is disappointed when her daughter’s boyfriend says he can’t come to the meeting with the lawyer: this isn’t his lawsuit and he can’t sit in on the meeting without waiving attorney-client privilege. In fact, Celia can’t be present for the meeting either. Her mom isn’t happy over that, but reluctantly accepts that it’s for the best after Stephen explains more of how privilege works. But she still really wants to have Celia close by. When the day finally comes, they dress up in nice clothes (Celia’s mom is thrilled to have her do their makeup) and go to a downtown law office together.

The lawyer who greets them is a black-haired woman around Celia’s mom’s age named Vivian Carney. She takes the mother and daughter back to her office together and makes pleasant small talk with them about their jobs, interests, and relationships.

She’s a divorcée too, herself. She personally disavows the idea of marriage. “It just never works out. I’ve worked on way too many family law cases to feel like it does.”

“Oh, I think it can!” Celia’s mom maintains as they sip coffee. “That special someone is out there, you just have to find him.”

“Still in the market for a Mr. Right, huh?”

“Oh… I wouldn’t say that,” her mom demurs. “I’ve just got so much on my mind… all the stress, still, of all… well, what we’re here for.”

Vivian nods in understanding. It seems like a good moment to dive into business. Celia is asked to wait outside in the reception area so they can retain attorney-client privilege, per the discussion with Stephen. Her mom seems glad to have had her along up to this point, and to now find the whole “meeting a lawyer” business less intimidating.

Celia reads magazines (there’s even a few thankfully recent style ones) and chats with the receptionist for a while before her mom comes back out with Vivian. The black-haired lawyer makes some last small talk with them both and says she’s looking forward to seeing them again.

“I’ll tell you how it went in the car, sweetie,” her mom murmurs, “Viv said we shouldn’t talk about this stuff around other people if we can help it.”

Celia drives the pink Beetle, like normal: it’s “her” car, even if they largely split its use between them.

“So Viv said there’s basically three different cases here, really,” her mom begins.

“There’s the suit against the insurance company, there’s getting custody of the kids back, and there’s reporting your dad’s abuse to the police. Which isn’t really our case, because she said the DA’s office would all take care of that.”

Celia: “No, I have someone we report that to,” Celia cuts in. “I have to see someone specific for it.”

GM: “Oh? Who’s that?” her mom asks.

Celia: Celia pulls the note her grandmother had given her from her pocket and hands it over. She had been carrying it around, just in case, ready to leap into action. She just hadn’t thought it would be quite this soon.

GM: Celia’s mom doesn’t seem to recognize the names, but on hearing she got them from her grandma, remarks, “Oh. Well… good on you, sweetie, for still havin’ a relationship with her.”

In any case, Vivian thinks the case against the insurance company is very strong. The hospital bill amount is over six figures, so the company likely won’t choose to just quietly settle, but it’s a pretty cut and dry case of suffering a hugely traumatic injury that wasn’t covered. In addition to covering the full cost of the hospital bill, Vivian says there’s also potential for significant additional damages, given Diana’s subsequent hardship and especially how she wasn’t able to get proper surgery to repair her leg.

“She said she was… ‘chompin’ at the bit’ to take this case,” her mom says with an almost shy smile. “Those were her words. Chompin’ at the bit. She’ll do it pro bono, just because she thinks we’re so likely to win, and to get the company to pay her attorney’s fees.”

“She did say we couldn’t sue your father for this, though. Just because it happened when we were married, and there’s all sorts of legal protections against suin’ your own spouse.”

“I mean, we might be able to try, but it’s a way more complicated case than against the company, and it’s a civil rather than criminal matter, so she doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to.”

Celia: “I’m really, really happy for you, Mom. I’m honestly thrilled. This is amazing. It’s going to be great.” Celia is all smiles. “I didn’t think they’d be able to go after him, but even just the insurance thing would be huge. Get you out of debt. And pro bono! Momma, that’s amazing. Did she say if we should report the abuse now or if it has to be recent…?”

GM: Celia’s mom smiles back at her.

“I know, sweetie. It… almost doesn’t feel like it’s real, but it’d be just such a weight off…”

She looks out the window for a moment as Celia drives, her smile fading.

“She said… your father could still be prosecuted. For what he did to me.”

“That the statute of limitations for what he did is six years.”

Celia: “Then we’ll handle that too, Momma. I just need to take care of something first.”

She gives her mom’s hand a squeeze. There’s no more time to delay.

Tuesday afternoon, 25 November 2008

GM: Celia drops her mom off at home, who says she’s due pretty soon to teach a class at the dance studio. The lawsuit might promise relief from her financial woes, but for now there are still bills to pay.

Celia goes back to her dorm at Tulane. Emily is konked out fast asleep over several textbooks despite it being afternoon. There are bags under her eyes, like with Celia’s mom. Her bed is a mess of half-finished assignments.

Celia looks up Paul Simmons on the online yellow pages. He actually works for Fidelity Bank, not Whitney Bank. She finds that he owns a home in Audubon Place, which may not be so surprising: her father would trust a neighbor he’s gotten to know as the manager for his children’s trusts.

She passes the afternoon working on homework for her classes: who knows if Paul is home yet. Emily starts awake several hours later with an, “Oh fuck! I’m late!” and hurries out the door to work. The assignments are left unfinished.

Celia: Once Celia is finished with her own work there isn’t much for her to do but wait. She could go see Simmons at work, but he lives right down the street. That’s pretty convenient. She tries to remember if she’s ever met the man, then uses her laptop to find a recipe for muffins she can take over. Everyone likes muffins. And she’d just made them in cooking class where she’d gotten good remarks from her teacher, so she knows she makes good muffins. Just not blueberry. Banana nut? Pistachio? There’s an oven somewhere she can use. Probably.

Her thoughts are interrupted by Emily’s quick exit. She’ll have to leave a note for the girl if she ever wants to talk. Or text her, like a normal person. Celia takes a glance at the assignments that her roommate left behind. Maybe there’s something she can help with. Or hire a tutor for. Or both.

GM: They’re premed assignments. The ones she’s supposed to be doing well at.

But that’s something to deal with later. Celia makes the four-minute walk to Audubon Place with her muffins in hand. She flashes her ID past the guards and knocks on the door to Paul’s home. It’s an expensive-looking, three-story house with a wide driveway and impeccably-maintained yard with several neat rows of trees and flowerbeds. A Porsche and BMW sit in front of the house.

There are several Blackwatch guards outside, too. Celia isn’t sure what they’re even doing there. They question her suspiciously, even inspect her muffins, and then knock on the door for her.

Paul sees her in. He’s a middle-aged man with rectangular glasses, a receding hairline, and bland smile.

He knows who she is. He remarks, “Those muffins look scrumptious. Your father said you were learning to cook.”

His house’s style of interior decor is decidedly minimalist, with almost no art or decorations to speak of save a few bland photographs of still landscapes that would get an “A” in photography class for meeting the teacher’s grading requirements, and nothing else. Not so much as a smudge of dirt or creased rug is present in the house. There are no scattered clothes or electronic devices, no dirty dishes, no sign it’s actually lived in. There are no signs of co-habitation by a spouse, kids, or even pets, despite how large it is. It feels more like a model house than a lived-in home. Indeed, for all the dwelling’s well-to-do-ness, its architecture is almost offensively generic, the same McMansion style copied in hundreds of wealthy suburbias throughout the country. The house feels as if it lacks a soul.

Celia: Celia feels as if she has stepped into some sort of museum exhibit rather than a home. There is nothing here. No personality. No style. It is… austere. Stern, even, as unwelcoming as the guards outside his home. She is keenly aware of every step she has taken in these shoes, every opportunity she had to clean them that she did not take. She removes them before following him into the living room to talk about her trust, glad for her well-tamed hair and neat, professional clothing: an echo of what she wore to visit her grandmother, though the material is less heavy and her top has been swapped for a cross-knit sweater that leaves one shoulder bare. She does not tug at it, but smiles up at Mr. Simmons—“I certainly couldn’t call you Paul, sir”—with guileless wide eyes.

GM: Paul gives a bland smile in response and pours coffee to go with Celia’s muffins while he talks with her about trusts in his living room. He briefly explains how there are two basic types of trusts. Revocable trusts are under the grantor’s complete control, and per the name, can be revoked from the beneficiary at any time. However, this is almost never done with trust fund kids, because revocable trusts don’t enjoy tax incentives. Every payment to the child is basically taxable as income. One of the primary benefits is that you can say at any point, “This trust is no more.”

Irrevocable trusts, however, are essentially tax-free. They can have all kinds of limits on them, but you can’t make changes once they’re made. Once money is in an irrevocable trust it’s no longer considered ‘your’ asset. But that also doesn’t make it the beneficiary’s asset. Irrevocable trusts can have significant limitations placed on the beneficiary’s vestment by the grantor, such as “This trust will not vest if you have any outstanding debt in excess of X” or “If you’re in legal trouble” or more nuanced things. These limitations are intentionally broad, but only enforced when desired.

The terms of Celia’s trust include her monthly allowance, much of which she has been using to help support her mom with the car, gas, and tuition. Celia is also due additional payments when she graduates college, marries a husband, and has her first child. Her trust will also not vest if a gynecologist’s examination finds that she has had premarital sex (or if she fails to have regular examinations), if she stops attending her father’s church, if she fails a drug test, or otherwise violates a plethora of stipulations regarding the life her father has planned out for her.

Of course, her father can always choose to let her inherit anyways. Trust limitations can’t be changed, Paul repeats, but are only enforced when desired.

He also asks why she’s interested in the particulars of her trust and not-so-subtly inquires whether she’s experiencing financial troubles. He’s very sympathetic.

He insinuates he’s willing to let her receive the trust’s payments early if she performs oral sex on him.

Celia: Trust limitations can’t be changed. He’d said it twice, to make sure she heard, and the words echo. She can’t change them. Can’t forge them. Can’t ask him to change them. And she has already violated one of them. She is so enraptured in her own planning that she almost doesn’t hear him ask and offer a solution—it’s his hand on her bare shoulder that does it, and rather than pull away she blinks a few times until her eyes begin to water, and nods her head.

She spins a tale for him: stressed about school, struggling to keep up with her classes, terrified of disappointing her father. She mentions her roommate’s downward spiral, how she’s had to work two jobs to make ends meet, how Celia is afraid she will end up like that if her father decides to cut her off. None of it is a lie.

“He says I’m—I’m stupid,” Celia confesses, voice catching in a sob. She wipes at her eyes, puts the thought into his head of the scared little girl, too dumb to know what she’s talking about. “And what if he’s right? While you were talkin’ it all went over my head, vested and irrevocable and taxes,” she waves a hand around, clueless, “and then you’re offerin’ to, to let me buy out early, as it were, and Mr. Simmons please don’t take this the wrong way but what if my daddy were to find out?”

She drops her gaze, looks down at her lap. Her cheeks are flushed.

“I never—I mean I never messed around like that, like with what you said,” she stumbles over the words, “and I’m… Mr. Simmons, you got me all curious, and I know you’d treat me real nice, but them doctor visits, they scare me. That doctor, he puts one finger up there and it hurts and hurts and I keep thinkin’ my daddy can’t know what they’re doin’ to me, he just can’t, but it’s there on the trust and…”

She trails off, a helpless large-eyed doe, wringing her hands.

GM: Paul looks amused at first, then finally tired and cuts Celia off by placing a finger on her lips.

“I’ll cum in your mouth.”

“It won’t make any difference with your doctor visits.”

He lowers Celia to her knees and starts unbuckling his pants.

“Be sure to swallow.”

Celia: “W-wait, Mr. Simmons—I’ve never…”

She’s on her knees, though, looking up at him.

GM: “Just suck it like it’s a popsicle.”

“Your dad’s right that you’re stupid, but you are pretty.”

“Very pretty.”

Celia: So she does. On her knees, while he tells her that she’s stupid but pretty, she sucks him off. Like a popsicle.

And when it’s over, when she swallows his cum and the shame and guilt along with it, she excuses herself to the upstairs restroom. To see if the rest of his house is as weird and lifeless as the bottom. And to see if the vague plan that’s forming in her mind has any merit.

GM: Paul pats her cheek when she’s done and repeats how pretty she is while fondling her breast. He gives her very specific directions to follow to the bathroom and says not to look around. The house’s upstairs isn’t as weird and lifeless as the bottom floor, though.

It’s more so.

There aren’t even any rugs or furniture or pictures on the walls. There’s just bare wall and floor. Some of the doors are made out of steel and have secure-looking magnetic keycard swipes.

Celia: Whatever Celia had been expecting, it wasn’t this. First the guards, now the steel doors. What, exactly, does Paul Simmons get up to in his spare time? She walks slowly down the hall to the bathroom, locks herself inside, and turns on the faucet. She opens any cabinets in the bathroom as quietly as she can. She doesn’t expect there to be a keycard lying haplessly around, but maybe… a prescription bottle? Toothbrush? Something that says someone else lives here, something that gives some form of life or answers or something because right now there is an itch between her shoulder blades that is telling her to get out and she is reminded of the dull, lifeless eyes she’d seen when she was a kid. Her mind goes wild with theories. Her half-baked plan of somehow blackmailing Paul into changing the unchangeable trust melts away in the wake of these new discoveries, imagination taking her down a dark path.

What if he locks her behind one of those doors? What if that’s what the guards are for, to prevent people from getting out?

Walk downstairs, get the money. Walk downstairs, get the money, don’t come back. Never come back. She can handle that.

GM: There’s nothing in the cabinets. There are no prescription bottles, toothbrush, or toothpaste. Just the absolute essentials of soap and towels.

But there’s more in the shower. A faded rust-red residue along the rim.

It smells… faintly coppery.

Celia: He cut himself shaving, right? He had to have… cut himself… But the smell of blood doesn’t linger like that. She’s bled before. Period blood. Cut herself shaving. It doesn’t linger unless there’s a lot of it. It doesn’t stain unless there’s a lot of it.

The smell puts her back. The memories of that night play again in her mind. Her mom screaming. The hacksaw. The man on the phone telling her help isn’t coming. It’s just her and the monster in the hallway, and the gun is too heavy for her hands, then it’s gone—only this time when the monster tucks her into bed he tells her to kneel instead, and calls her stupid, and asks, in a voice that might be her dad’s, if she knows why she’s stupid, and the word ‘whore’ plays somewhere in the back of her mind.

She vomits. It comes up suddenly, her stomach heaving its contents into the porcelain bowl in front of her, cum and raw muffin batter and something that might have been the lettuce she’d eaten for lunch. She flushes it away, eyes watering, and stares at her distorted reflection in the swirling water.

Stupid. She is stupid. Stupid to think she can go against her dad. Stupid to think she could find a way to blackmail Paul. Stupid to think she’ll be able to help her mom.

She uses the noise of the flushing toilet to close the drawers and cabinets she had opened. She rinses her mouth. Pats her face dry. And presses record on her phone before she leaves the bathroom.

GM: She runs almost right into Paul’s chest as she steps out.

“I’m glad you’re cleaned up,” he says, but the words feel as fake, hollow, and obviously forced as the bland smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.

Celia: “Oh!” Celia stumbles backward a step. Her heart hammers in her chest. “Mr. Simmons. Thank you for lettin’ me use your washroom. And for… for goin’ over everything with me.”

Real pretty. But stupid. Her face burns. She looks down at her bare feet. Her toes are painted a pretty shade of pink.

GM: “It is desirable to be clean.” The words feel uncomfortable and out of place, like plastic.

He looks her over.

Celia: “Your house is—is real clean, Mr. Simmons. I was noticin’. I was gonna ask who does it for you.”

GM: “Who does what? Designed it? Cleans it?”

It’s there in his voice.


Celia: “Ah, cleans, yes.”

GM: “Maid in NOLA,” he says dismissively, clearly not considering it to be important.

“It’s time for you to go. Here is your money.”

He hands her a clip of bills.

Then his hand cups one of her breasts.

“We can do this again if you want more.”

Celia: She is very, very still when he touches her. But she nods.

“Yes, Mr. Simmons. Thank you. I’ll be… yes.”

Tuesday evening, 25 November 2008

GM: “You doin’ all right, sweetie? You seem a little quiet,” her mom remarks at dinner.

She’s had more good news to bring up. Viv says she can settle all of her debt right now, by simply filing for bankruptcy.

She admits she “feels a little dumb” she didn’t think to do that initially. The collections agency put her on a payment plan which she assumed was final. She’d been under so much stress and, well, trauma after the hospitalization. The option honestly hadn’t occurred to her.

Celia: “Just thinking, Momma. But if you file for bankruptcy, doesn’t that mean the hospital doesn’t have to pay you?”

Something doesn’t make sense here. Celia doesn’t know what it is, though.


GM: “Oh, she said I should file right now,” her mom explains. “While I’m actually, well, still pretty bankrupt. And then sue the insurance company for damages, which she said there was still lots and lots to collect on.”

“Between the money I’ve already paid I shouldn’t have had to, and compensation for not getting proper surgery and a bunch of other damages.”

Celia: “Don’t they take everything if you file? The car? Your… apartment?” Celia gestures around them.

GM: Her mom shakes her head. “Oh, I definitely asked that. She said I’d be able to keep the apartment, and the car is moot, since it belongs to you.”

“She said it would be a smart idea, because while the case against the company is still really strong, this gives us two shots at wipin’ out my debts. And it could give us a stronger bargaining position, since we’d be asking the company for less money. Though still quite a lot.”

“Plus I don’t know how long settlin’ with the company could take, so I can finally get my full McGehee paycheck while that’s happening.” Her mom looks relieved. “Give us some more breathin’ room.”

Celia: “If you think that’s your best option, Momma.” Celia thinks she should talk to Stephen about it, but she’s been afraid to call the boy since her run in with Simmons. What if he knows? She pushes her dinner around her plate with her fork.

“There’s no drawbacks? No… hidden traps?”

GM: Her mother shakes her head. “Oh, believe me, I asked. She said I’d have to sell off any nonexempt property, which is anything besides a house, car, clothes, home furnishings, retirement accounts, and trade tools. But… well, look around, sweetie,” her mom laughs, “I don’t really own a whole lot.”

“She did say it would really hurt my credit score. But in the long run, it’s better, with all the debts wiped off. Since those drag down your score too.”

“And there’s some court filin’ fees, but that’s really all peanuts next to what I owe.”

Celia: Celia can’t keep her things here, then. Maybe a storage unit?

“Oh. Well. I guess that makes sense, then.” Doesn’t it? Wipe out the debt, let her get her full check, let her be able to live again instead of feeling like a burden? And if things go south with Daddy… then at least Celia won’t be on her knees for Simmons again, right?

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Whore.

“Peanuts,” Celia echoes, nodding.

GM: Her mom nods and smiles. “She said we can go over my property in more depth, just to be double sure I won’t lose it.”

“But that there probably won’t be anything much to worry about. I really don’t own a whole lot.” She laughs. “I mean, what are they gonna do, repossess that poster I printed out at work?”

It shows the feet of a ballerina dancing en pointe with the caption:

“It’s actually been a little illuminating, losing everything to your father.” Her face dims a little. “I still really miss my old ballet things, of course. The trophies and the costumes and my sewing kit and all that.”

“But a lot of my old stuff, I really don’t miss. And I don’t think I’m in any hurry to replace it. It’s amazing how much clutter we pick up over our lives.”

Celia: Celia remembers that night. Luana’s words to her. How her mother would rather have her ballet things than jewelry. She’d gone for the concealer instead.


“I’m sorry,” she tells her plate. “I’m sorry you—you lost it all, that he—he threw it all out.”

GM: Her mom rests a hand on her shoulder.

“Are you sure you’re doing all right, sweetie?”

Celia: There’s a monster that lives under the bed. And another one next door. And another one that calls himself Daddy. And nobody knows it but me.

“Yes. Tired. I think I’m about to start my period. Cramping.” Celia puts a hand on her abdomen.

GM: “Oh, I’m sorry!” her mom exclaims. “You know, I’ve got a heat pad I use for my leg, it oughta work just fine for cramps too.” Her mom digs it out, turns it on, then curls up on the couch with her. She wraps her arm around Celia and leans her daughter’s head against her shoulder.

“I still have you, sweetie,” she murmurs as the pad clicks on, running a hand along Celia’s hair. “There’s nothin’ else in all the world I rather would.”

Celia: The heat doesn’t do much for Celia. Her stomach is all in knots, and it’s not because of any upcoming shedding of her uterine lining. No, it’s anxiety, fear, and self-loathing. She wants to go home. To curl up in her own bed and cry, maybe with a pint of ice cream. She wants to be eight again, in that rental house where she and Isabel had to share a bedroom, without a pony to her name. Before the world became awful. Before the monsters came out from under the bed.

She leans against her mom, closes her eyes, and lets herself be held. Because this is the one nice haven she has in this sea of uncertainty and turbulence and darkness, and she’ll take what she can. Before she ruins this, too, by wishing for more things she shouldn’t have.

Celia I, Chapter II
The Worst Dinner

“When are you going to stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something?”
Celia Flores

Monday morning, 10 November 2008

GM: Stephen makes a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits and drives Celia back to her dorm the next morning, so she can avoid what he calls the “walk of shame.” That’s also a new expression. Emily is passed out in her bed and out like a light.

Stephen makes plans to see Celia again for a Batman Begins viewing. Class goes on like normal.

But she’s a woman now.

She can’t even imagine how her father would react.

Or maybe she could.

Celia: Of course she can. She can imagine exactly how her father will react. Which is why she doesn’t tell anyone—even Emily—about Stephen. Even though she sees him again so they can watch Batman Begins. And then Forrest Gump, when she mentions her dad hadn’t let her watch that one either. And soon she’s… well, a little bit head over heels for him. But that’s to be expected, right? First kiss, first time, first…

“…boyfriend?” Celia asks over ice cream. She can’t quite meet his eye as the question leaves her lips.

GM: Creole Creamery has lots of flavors. Stephen got one called “Lavender Honey” that sounded intriguing to him.

Celia: Celia is made of bolder stuff than boys who like Lavender Honey. She goes for the Strawberry Jalapeno Cheesecake. It has a nice bite to it, and she offers her cone to Stephen in case he’s interested in venturing outside the lines.

GM: Stephen is amused enough to give it a try. “I can see strawberry cheesecake, but jalapeno is weird.” He also gives Celia his cone in case she feels like wandering back inside those lines. “Lavender Honey” sounds so feminine and inoffensive. She might have had enough of that.

Celia doesn’t fully see his face with her eyes averted, but she can hear the smile in his voice when he says, “My stalker might take issue. But she never worked up the nerve to ask me out.”

“Yeah. Boyfriend.”

Celia: “Mm, well, I haven’t seen her around since we started hanging out. Maybe I was right and she had a crush.” She helps herself to his ice cream. It was offered, after all.

“So, in that case…” She pauses. She isn’t sure how to ask. Or even if she should. It might scare him off.

“Can I… ask something weird..?”

GM: He nods. “Sure, what is it?”

Celia: “Soooo… my dad has a weird dating rule… any chance you want to… meet the family? Otherwise we could, like, keep this a secret, which is fine, I’m definitely okay with that, I just don’t want you to think I’m like ashamed of you or anything because that is not the case.”

GM: “Oh no, I don’t think that’s weird at all,” Stephen says, shaking his head. “That’s what you do after a while. Maybe I could introduce you to my dad, too.”

Celia: “Well… the thing about my dad… he’s, um. I mean he’s… really strict. So there’d be some level of you pretending you hadn’t already kissed me. And, y’know, other things.”

GM: “Okay, we can pretend that.”

“I’ve had friends who dated girls with those kinds of dads.”

Celia: “Oh. Great. I’ll let him know. And I’d love to meet your dad.”

GM: “They give boys ‘the talk’ and act all friendly while showing off their gun collection.”

Stephen smiles. “We don’t have to pretend with my dad. He won’t care.”

“He’s great. I really look up to him.”

Celia: Celia is quiet. She doesn’t want to tell him that he does have things to be scared of with her dad. She isn’t sure what he would do to Stephen if he found out that the boy had deflowered his baby girl. Let alone what he’d do to her.

She doesn’t want to think about it.

“I feel like I’m getting off easier here. Maybe I can make it up to you.” Her smile is suggestive.

GM: “Oh, I can think of a few ways…” her boyfriend smirks back.

Friday evening, 14 November 2008

GM: Celia may indeed come to feel she needs to make it up to Stephen.

Her father greets her boyfriend cordially at the door, but remarks how the shorter, thinner, less muscular man needs to work on his grip after they shake hands. “You play many sports, Stephen?”

“Baseball when I was younger, sir. These days I mostly go running.”

Stephen looks as if the handshake hurt his hand.

“That’s too bad,” Celia’s father says, and leaves the matter of sports at that.

The momentary silence seems to leave Stephen a little uncomfortable before Celia’s dad picks up with other topics. Stephen’s major. His intended career. The two sit down in the den to watch “the game” as they talk. Celia’s father tells her to bring them some beers.

She’s also been told to cook dinner for them tonight. Her dad wants to see that those cooking classes are paying off.

Celia: Celia did her best to warn Stephen ahead of time. Maybe she hadn’t done a good enough job. But she does bring the beers, as requested, and she… well, she planned on staying nearby, but then the request comes through for dinner.

“Oh. I thought we’d order in. I wasn’t planning…” But Celia knows better than to argue with her father. “Of course, Daddy.”

GM: “I told you this earlier, sweetie. Celia doesn’t always have the best memory,” he tells Stephen. “Does she forget many things with you?”

“Not that I can remember, sir,” Stephen answers with a faintly joking expression, as if to defuse the atmosphere with some humor.

Celia: Celia moves into the kitchen to see what on earth they have that she can prepare. Pasta? Pasta is easy. Boil noodles. Heat sauce. Cook… meat? Oh god. What do they have? She opens the refrigerator to see what the options are.

GM: “You can make us steaks,” her dad calls without smiling back at Stephen’s halfhearted joke. There’s always steak in the fridge. There’s some vegetables, too, for a side. Peas and potatoes.

Her dad talks with Stephen about his intended career. She may find some relief in that he approves of her boyfriend’s career choice and especially his desire to prosecute the Mafia and further his family’s work.

“The Mafia are the scum of the earth,” her dad declares without pause.

Stephen doesn’t look like he disagrees at all.

They’re able to talk about a lot of the same things Celia and Stephen talked about on their first ‘date.’

“That’s a good vocation. Putting filth and degenerates behind bars. Thomas E. Dewey did that. That’s how he became a governor. An almost president. Prosecuting Lucky Luciano. You know his story, I’m sure.”

“Yes, sir. Everyone thought he was the greatest lawyer in the country. I think he’d have been a good president.”

“They were better men in those days,” Maxen declares. “Even a Democrat nuked the Japs.”

Celia: Celia has never cooked a steak.

But there’s salad stuff, lettuce and veggies, so she pulls out the meat because she heard Bobby Flay say something about letting it rest, and she gets to cutting the veggies for the salad.

Salt, pepper… some of that… green stuff. She hates touching the raw meat. Hates it. She grimaces every time she does. It’s bleeding and it drips on the floor and then she has to clean it up and she doesn’t heat the pan before she puts it in with a pat of butter. Then more butter. And a little more, because butter makes everything better. Paula Dean said that.

Potatoes poked with a fork and set in the oven, wrapped in foil. She’d seen her mom do that enough times when she was a kid to remember that much. Not 350, though. 400? She takes a guess.

How do you cook peas?

Celia decides to boil them.

She dresses and plates the salad, then carries it out for Stephen and her dad.

GM: Her dad gives her a cross look.

“You bring everything out at the same time, Celia. Don’t you remember how we serve the food?”

“Does it make a difference?” asks Stephen.

Her father stares at him.

“Yes. It does.”

He does not elaborate.

“Throw it out, Celia. It’ll just get soggy now. Make it again.”

“I can help,” says Stephen, rising from his seat. “The game’s almost-”

Her father puts a hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder and firmly sits him back down.

“Celia will do it.”

Stephen looks a little uncomfortable. “All right.”

Celia: “Oh. Daddy, at school we learned that the salad comes out first. But… of course.” She retreats back into the kitchen, giving Stephen a look over her dad’s head. She should have just dated him in secret and called it a day.

The salad goes into the garbage. She drains the peas, throws some butter on those as well, and adds a dash of salt. Potatoes are… not done. Steak is barely sizzling.

“Daddy, do you want wine with dinner?” she calls.

GM: “Yes, I do. Stephen, how old are you?”

“22, sir.”

“You can pour for him too, Celia.”

Celia: Red wine, red meat. That makes sense, right? It makes sense to Celia, so that’s the bottle that she gets.

Eventually everything is done. Two steaks, three potatoes, a bunch of peas, a fresh salad. No steak for Celia. She sets the table, then moves into the doorway between rooms.

“Do you want me to bring it in here, Daddy? I set the table, but I can bring it here instead.”

GM: Stephen tries to turn the conversation back to Mafia-related things, since that hit off well. But her dad’s mood doesn’t really seem in it anymore. He actually looks a bit grateful when Celia reappears. Her dad answers, “Civilized people eat at the table, Celia. I shouldn’t have to explain this to you.”

Celia: “You just looked comfortable, Daddy.”

GM: “Do either of you know what we get when people value comfort more than civilization?” he asks.

Stephen waits.

“Decadence,” Maxen answers.

“I suppose that’s true, sir,” Stephen says.

“Why are you telling me you set the table? That’s always your job,” Celia’s father says as he gets up.

Celia: “I was… calling you to dinner, is all. Letting you know it was ready. Poor choice of words.”

GM: “You can say dinner is ready next time.”

Celia: “Yes, Daddy.”

GM: “I don’t care if the table is set. I care that dinner is ready.”

Celia: “Dinner is ready.” Celia smiles at him.

GM: They sit down. Stephen pulls out Celia’s chair, which her dad seems to approve of, as well as the fact that the men have steaks.

Stephen compliments the food. Her dad simply chews.

Stephen brings up philosophy and the works of the Stoics. Her dad seems to approve of that topic, at least. He mentions how James Stockdale, the war hero survivor of the Hanoi Hilton, credits much of his resilience to Epicetus’ Enchiridion.

“Men had guts in that era.”

“Social values were different,” Stephen says. “The Stoics belittled physical pain, but not necessarily as a form of machismo. To them, the shame and social pain of having failed in one’s duty was more devastating than any physical suffering.”

Celia’s dad seems distracted by the underdone potatoes.

Celia: Celia makes sure to keep his glass of wine full. She leaves the conversation to the men, like a good woman.

GM: Stephen tries to bring her in a few times.

“Celia’s major is dance. She doesn’t know about these things,” her father says.

“It seems like it runs in the family,” Stephen says conversationally.

Her dad looks at him.

Celia: Celia gives him a look. No.

“He—he saw me at school,” Celia fumbles, “and I guess he asked my friend about me, and she knows about…” Celia doesn’t say the name. She sets down her fork.

GM: Stephen looks more than a bit confused.

“Celia’s mother is dead,” her father says. “It’s a painful subject for her.”

Celia: Celia nods. She looks down at her plate.

GM: “Oh. I hadn’t realized. I’m so sorry,” says Stephen.

“Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything,” says her father.

Celia: “It’s—it’s…”

Oh God just stop talking.

“Right. Thank you. Very painful. Daddy, did Stephen tell you what his father does?”

GM: “Yes,” adds Stephen, “he’s a prosecutor for the Eastern District of Louisiana…”

The rest of the conversation is comparatively smoother sailing, if through still-turbulent waters. Celia’s dad does not seem happy with the dinner, but at least doesn’t remark on it.

“Many girls’ fathers like to remind boys they have guns,” Maxen then says.

“I played football for years. Quarterback. I practice martial arts. I don’t need guns to kill somebody. I can kill with my bare hands.”

He stares Stephen directly in the eye. Silence hangs for a moment.

“I expect my daughter to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Stephen looks at a momentary absence for words.

“I understand, sir.”

Celia’s father turns back towards her.

“Celia, clear the table, do the dishes, and go to bed. I’m going to talk with Stephen about boundaries.”

Celia: Celia gathers up the plates, gives her dad a kiss on the cheek, and excuses herself to the kitchen. “Doing the dishes” really just means putting them in the dishwasher, so she loads that and tidies up the rest of the mess she made with paper towels, Lysol wipes, and Mr. Clean’s lemon cleanser for the floor. The steak packages had bled. Everywhere.

She’s not trying to eavesdrop, not really. But if it so happens that she does, well, at least she’ll know what to apologize to Stephen for.

GM: Her father is to the point. How late is acceptable to be out. What places it is acceptable to go and what activities are acceptable to do. Celia is saving herself for marriage and has made a commitment to Jesus Christ that she will wait. If Stephen dishonors her commitment, Maxen will do things to him “you won’t ever forget, because they will remain on your body forever.”

Maxen then says he likes Stephen. His grandfather might have been a Democrat, but the Democrats were “a different party” back in those days. Stephen seems smart and is pursuing a respectable career with the laudable goal of “putting scum behind bars.” If Celia’s boyfriend can abide by the above terms, “You and I will get along perfectly well.”

“I think we’ll be able to, sir,” Stephen answers.

“Good. I’m sorry for how bad the dinner was. Celia can be stupid and will be taking further cooking lessons to make up for tonight.”

“I wouldn’t say she’s stupid, sir-”

“Stephen, I tell things as they are. Celia has received instruction on how to cook and is still incapable of preparing a proper meal for her men. That makes her stupid.”

“The fault is partly mine. I should have recognized her intellectual limits and started her at a younger age instead of assuming she would recognize something’s value and apply herself accordingly.”

Celia: Celia can’t listen to this anymore. Her heart sinks. She hadn’t learned how to cook steak at school yet, and she had done the potatoes the way her mom had showed her, and peas are always mushy. The dressing was hand-made, and she’d loved it, with oil and vinegar and spices. Her dad’s words are like a slap to the face. She slinks out of the kitchen after starting the dishwasher.

She wants to go back to the dorm. She has an excuse about a test on the tip of her tongue. Her books are at the dorm. It’s not even a lie. But she can’t imagine that her father is going to let her go, and after hearing what he said to Stephen…

Celia heads for the stairs. She will sleep here tonight. She will talk to Stephen tomorrow, and hopefully he will understand. Her heart is warmed by the fact that he stuck around, that he spoke up against her father’s harsh words.

She can only hope that he isn’t scared off.

Saturday afternoon, 15 November 2008

GM: Stephen talks with Celia tomorrow. He says her dad is “uh, intense” and mentions that Maxen made plans with him to “do some martial arts together” so he could be able to defend Celia. “I didn’t really feel like I could say no.”

“He’s really… Jesus, Celia, I think I’d have preferred if you never introduced us.”

“Uh, no offense.”

Celia: Her giggle borders on hysterical. She can’t help it. She didn’t think that he would even call her back after that. Last night was both better and worse than she had imagined.

“I’m sorry. I… I don’t really know how to explain without telling you everything, and it’s… it’s really…”

There are tears in her eyes. She looks away. She shouldn’t tell him. But she wants to tell him.

“It’s bad,” she says, “growing up like that, and then when I was in the kitchen I heard what he said, and it was just…”

She wipes at her eyes. Her own father called her stupid. Her lower lip trembles. Does Stephen think she’s stupid now too? They’d just made themselves “official” and she’d ruined it by taking him home to meet her father.

“I’m sorry,” she says again.

GM: “Aw, Jesus. I’m sorry you had to hear that,” Stephen says, taking her hand. “You’re not stupid. That’s… really fucked up he’d call you that.”

Celia: “I’m a dance major.” Her voice breaks. “My roommate has to tutor me in Biology.”

GM: “I need help with Biology,” Stephen says. “I know it doesn’t have anything to do with law, and half the time I’m reading the textbook my brain feels like it’s going to leak out through my ears.”

Celia: “But you’re so smart.”

GM: “I’m just good at different things. You’re probably a lot better at dance than me.”

“That’s really sweet how you’re majoring in dance too, like your mom.”

“I’m sorry she passed. That must’ve sucked with just your dad around.”

Celia: “If I tell you something… you can’t tell anyone else. Okay?” Her eyes search his face. There’s something in her tone that’s pleading.

GM: Stephen nods. “I won’t.”

Celia: “My mom isn’t dead. That’s not a secret. You can look her up. She teaches at McGehee. She kept my dad’s name.” Celia pauses. She isn’t sure where to begin. She doesn’t know how much to tell him.

“She wasn’t… hit by a car. My dad… I found out after they divorced that… he used to…” She doesn’t know how to say it. “He used to hit her. And… one night when I was… I was fourteen… he’d just won the senate seat, and he… I snuck back into the house. My parents were supposed to be out of town. But my mom… I heard her screaming. I heard a smack and… my dad, he…” her fingers tremble. She curls her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “I tried to stop him. I watched him.. he threw her—both of us—down the stairs. She told me to run. But I couldn’t leave her. I couldn’t… I couldn’t leave her. I tried to call the police but they didn’t come, they never came, and I saw him… he had a… her leg… there was so much blood.”

GM: Stephen blinks.

“Jesus Christ.”

“That’s… horrible.”

“Did she report it to the police, try to get custody of you?”

Celia: “Custody?” Celia’s laugh is watery. “She would lose that battle. None of my siblings want to see her. Isabel, she’s still at McGehee, she hates her. She follows my dad’s logic that Mom is ‘dead.’ I don’t think they even know what happened. I told Isabel about the abuse and she called me a liar.”

Celia wipes at her eyes.

“He broke her legs. On purpose. So she couldn’t dance. And when it was over he threw away all her gear, her trophies. He cut off her parents, told them to choose us or her, and they chose us. Over their own daughter. You see how he is. And I can’t tell anyone, I can’t—he’s a senator. No one would believe me, and nothing would change, and he’d… he’d kill me.” She isn’t even sure that she’s exaggerating at this point. What is he going to do when she goes home this summer if the hymen kit doesn’t work?

“He’s going to kill me.” She doesn’t mean to say it out loud. It’s barely a whisper, more to herself than him.

GM: Stephen takes her hand again. “He’s not going to kill you. Just keep lying to him. And your mom could get custody. My dad knows lots of lawyers. You could go to the press over this. Get him out of office!”

Celia: “I can’t, Stephen. Don’t you need proof for something like that? My mom won’t say anything, and who is going to believe me? I was fourteen. And she doesn’t make enough to support four kids now. He wanted me to go to Liberty. Up North. But I had to stay here so I could make sure he doesn’t hurt them.”

She shouldn’t have told him. All this talk of exposing her father, it’ll just make things worse. Fracture the family even more. Ruin her mother’s life.

“You can’t tell anyone. You promised.”

“I can… I’m thinking of something to do. To help.”

GM: “Okay, statute of limitations is a thing,” Stephen grants. “I don’t think he could be criminally charged with domestic abuse, at least over that specific instance, but you should talk with a real lawyer to be sure. I bet there’s others, too. And even if there’s not, you sure as hell could get him removed from office and make him lose custody of the kids. He’d definitely be on the hook for child support if that happened.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone. I did promise. But you and your mom shouldn’t just let him get away with this!”

Celia: “She’s broken,” Celia whispers. Like me.

Only Celia isn’t broken. She’s in college. She’s in beauty school. She’s dating a great guy.

She’s planning how to pretend to be a virgin still when the doctor sticks his fingers up inside of her. Protecting her mom’s abuser because she’s afraid.


“Your dad… you think he could help?”

GM: Stephen nods. “Absolutely. He’s a federal prosecutor. He’s used to taking down people in powerful positions like your dad, and has tons of legal connections.”

“Look, I wanted to introduce you to him anyway, so let’s do that. You could also introduce me to your mom, to get a better feel for things.”

“And so I get to meet at least one non-horrible parent of yours.”

Celia: “My mom is a sweetheart,” Celia agrees. “She’ll love you.”

GM: Her boyfriend smiles. “I guess you had to get it from somewhere.”

Friday afternoon, 21 November 2008

GM: Em’s second date with Mark doesn’t go as well as the first.

It goes worse.

It’s largely the same verbal and sexual degradation, though he does it in a dress, bra, and wig this time. Mark calls Em fouler names and seems even more turned on.

Or at least aggressive. Visiting his pent-up lusts on a girl (or at least boy who looks more like a girl) seems to embolden the gray-haired man. He cums over Em’s face and tells him to wipe it off, then “lick that up, you crossdressing little faggot. Lick it up with that man-pleaser mouth.”

Em is sore all day afterwards. He bleeds when he poops.

Christina Roberts sends him to a beauty salon before his next “date.” He’s under instructions to get “completely transformed” by the staff there. Clearly it’s what Mark is into.

Em could have gone to a real salon. But he took a quick look at those prices.

A little research, and he found out beauty schools have their own practice salons that offer cheaper treatments. There’s one relatively nearby in Algiers.

He doesn’t need the money, not really, with how much whoring pays.

Going to a cheaper place is just an act of petty, meaningless rebellion no one may even notice.

Like his life.

Celia: The uniform at the John Jay Beauty College is black. Black scrubs, black aprons, black dress shoes. Even the headband Celia wears is black, pushing her hair back from her face to keep up with the neat appearance of the students at John Jay’s. She has a slip of paper in her hand as she moves into the waiting room, looking for her next client.

The waiting room itself, even at a school like this, is… comfortable. Shelves with products line the walls and invite perusal. A sofa and chairs dot the area in front of the reception desk. Guests are offered tea and water upon arrival, and if they have neither then Celia is supposed to offer again. She’s often reprimanded for forgetting.

“El… len?” she asks, hesitantly, as she stares down at the handwritten note in her hand. None of the women in the waiting room look up. She clears her throat, tries again. “El? Elliot?”

GM: “You’ll get faggots and fairies, sometimes,” one of her instructors had mentioned during class.

“Whatever. Their money’s as good as any woman’s.”

Emmett: The man who coughs and gets to his feet doesn’t look like he’s definitely gay, though. Well, he doesn’t look not gay, so much as he oozes sexuality that’s utterly indifferent to anybody’s tastes but his own perverse appetites.

At least, he normally does.

When the pretty girl (who does she remind me of?) calls Elliott’s name, it’s like a fresh coat of paint splashed over a wall with water damage. A boyish smile warms impishly handsome features. It’s only when his expression is so transformed that Celia realizes the ‘man’ is no older than her.

You could forget it looking into his eyes, though. There’s something lost and mischievous and dark in there, and it takes most people a long time to wander that far from themselves. The faint bruises on his face, and purpling around one of his eyes, don’t help him look younger.

He’s dressed in a silk button-down and sea-colored slacks, but he allows himself the freedom of an untucked shirt and unbuttoned sleeves.

“Elliott,” he agrees, extending a slender hand with aggressively trimmed nails. “And you are?”

Celia: “Elliot.” The name gives her pause. Her eyes move across his face, and it’s after only a very brief pause that she takes his hand in her own. Her shake is less than firm. “Hi, Elliot. My name is Celia. I’ll be working with you today. We have you scheduled for an oxygen lift and makeup application.” There’s a slight lilt to the end of the sentence that turns it into a question, as if double checking the services.

“If you don’t mind following me, I’ve prepared a treatment room.” The girl at the front desk had already had Elliot fill out the paperwork—mostly a release form in case his technician messes anything up—and an agreement that he wouldn’t use Retinol based products for the next 24 hours. She leads him into the spa side of the school, quieter without the gossiping hairdressers and blow dryers, and into a small room with a flat massage table in the middle. The table is draped in sheets, a pillow on one side for his head and another at the other end that will go beneath his knees. Various bottles of skincare products line the counter near the sink.

“So, the oxygen lift is generally for drier skin. Is that a major concern for you? Or what is it that you know you need to focus on? You can have a seat if you like. In a moment I’ll step out to let you get ready.”

GM: His major concern is that he’s a piece of shit no one loves and everyone callously uses.

But you focus on the little things first, right?

Oxygen lifts. Dry skin.

Emmett: He cares about his appearance, but he’s also been blessed with looks that take care of themselves. It’s all the ugly he keeps inside.

“I honestly don’t know much about what’ll work for me,” he says. “I don’t think I have particularly dry skin. But I’d probably have to defer to you. I mean, you look spectacular, so I assume you know what you’re doing.”

He doesn’t put any particular emphasis or heat on the compliment. It’s one of the things you do automatically as a whore.

Celia: Celia is not immune to compliments. She smiles at him, cheeks turning a pretty pink beneath the layers of concealer and foundation. The full coverage prevents it from being visible, but it’s there.

“Perfect. In that case, I’m going to step out for a sec, let you get settled. There’s a… they call it a smock but it’s kind of just a wrap. So there’s hooks on the back of the door, you can take your shirt off and put the wrap on and lay back on the table there. I’ll come back in and we can take a look at your skin under the light, and you can tell me more about what you’re looking for with the makeup after this so I can create a good base.”

Celia sees herself out to let him get settled. It’s less than necessary, considering his gender, but she’s used to following the rules for female clients and maybe he’s modest or something. Besides, she needs a minute to text Cécilia to double check the fake name on her high school boyfriend.

Emmett: Meanwhile, the boy formerly known as Elliot whistles to himself as he removes the silk shirt from a chest that, if unmuscled, is at least scrawny and lean.

He wraps himself in the smock, or wrap, or loincloth, whatever, then lays down on the cool table and closes his eyes, waiting like a patient lover.

Or like a kid afraid of his first shot.

Celia: It’s awkward, the waiting. The girls always make their clients wait too long. It’s not on purpose, not really, but this time Celia was busy firing off a handful of texts to her high school friend about the guy on her table, so Elliot has some time to enjoy the smooth jazz pumped in via the speakers. Nothing he’d recognize. Muzak and all that.

Eventually, though, Celia is back with a knock at the door, and now that she has gotten a better look at the boy on her table she is sure is is the same boy from high school who cheated on her friend with that slut. But she smiles at him, because the salon has no room for personal vendettas.

“Tell me about what you’re going for tonight, look-wise.”

She starts the facial while she waits by wetting his skin. Then there’s an orange-scented cleanser that she applies liberally, her fingers gliding across his face the way she was taught. It’s half cleansing, half facial massage. Her touch is light, but thorough.

GM: Christina told him to arrive at the salon fully dressed up. Dress. Wig. Hose. Heels. “You don’t put on clothes after you put on makeup. The girls there won’t care what you look like.”

That’s another way to stick her the finger.

Stick her the finger while getting pounded in his rear.

Emmett: The answer, as with a great many subjects his mind wanders over as of late, is to not think about it.

Once, he might have felt some humiliation at his words, but not now. He didn’t even avoid wearing the dress out of pride. He just doesn’t like how it feels.

“Tonight, I need to be female. Well, feminine. Not too much paint, but enough to make me look different. Can you do that?”

He smiles faintly under her touch. “That feels nice. Do I know you from somewhere, by the way?”

Celia: Turn a boy into a girl? Celia can do that. She tells him as much while she pulls a towel out of the warmer. It’s hot against her skin, but by the time she unrolls it and sets it against his face it has cooled enough to be comfortable. She uses it to remove the cleanser, then lets him know she’s starting the first of two masks. This one is for exfoliation. It has glycolic acid, which will break up any sebaceous filaments.

“People usually think those black dots on their nose and chin are blackheads, but they’re just clogged pores. This helps clean it out, and then I can extract them once we get them nice and pliant under the steam. This mask stays on for a few minutes.”

She has, thus far, avoided his question. Her hands move from his body for a brief moment while she cleans them off, then they’re back on his shoulders. Her fingers glide across his traps and up his neck with firm pressure. Neck massage while masking. That’s the best part of any facial.

The first mask comes off with a sponge. Time for extractions. She puts a cotton pad over his eyes to protect them from the lamp that she swings across his face, then begins. It’s… well, sometimes it’s painful, but she doesn’t push against anything that isn’t ready to come out.

“Date tonight?” she asks, to keep him focused on something else.

Emmett: “That’s what they call it,” he agrees. “Not exactly what I’d say, though. More of an ordeal.” His eyes are still closed.

She didn’t answer that question, which makes him think she does know him. But does he know her? She’s so familiar, but somehow, he can’t think of why.

He doesn’t make any noise at the pains she causes him. They are gentle things next to some of what other women have inflicted on him.

Celia: “You don’t sound very happy about it.”

Elliot has good skin. Celia tells him so. The extraction phase doesn’t last long; she gets out what she can, wipes down the contaminated areas with a swab of something similar to alcohol that will prevent infection, and moves on to the oxygen lift.

“This is my favorite mask. You can feel the bubbles foam and pop. But, hey, tell me about your date tonight. Where are you going?”

GM: A hotel room.

There’s never anywhere else.

Not even dinner like with some of his other clients.

Emmett: “It’s sort of an obligatory date,” he hedges, not particularly caring about that secret, but not wanting to scare her off too quickly. “The kind I’m not supposed to say no to. It’s with the guy who gave me these.” He twitches his cheek slightly, emphasizing one of the faint bruises there.

He smiles under the mask she gives him. “Then I guess it’s my favorite now, too.”

Celia: Her movements slow. The mask does its thing beneath the steam, and her hands move once more to the massage. The neck and shoulders. She doesn’t dig, not quite, but if she does find an area of tension she lingers and presses a knuckle against it while the mask foams. The whole point of it is to deliver oxygen to drier areas of skin, so anywhere that needs it will be the areas where the mask foams the most.

“Client-tech confidentiality clause,” she tells him, voice mild. There’s no judgment. “If you need to, you know, talk about it. Otherwise… I have a good concealer for that kind of thing, or if he prefers seeing them then I have a lighter coverage foundation for you. How glam are you going for?”

Emmett: “Is there?” he says, sounding surprised. “They really have confidentiality for everything these days, don’t they? Next bartenders won’t be able to tell you any good stories.”

“Hmm. Why don’t you disappear the bruises for now. I’ll see how he reacts tonight and we’ll see in the future. And any glam will go a long way with this guy. Subtle is always better with rich people. They like to think they’re paying for specialty.”

Celia: “It’s literally my job to listen to you, you know,” Celia says with a laugh. “That’s part of the industry. We’re part therapist and part beautician. But sure thing, I’ll keep that in mind.”

The second mask comes off. She follows it up with an anti-aging serum, which is pretty standard, and an eye cream. Then a moisturizer and lip balm. She talks while she works.

Emmett: “You don’t want to hear me talk about it, anyway. Celia, right? How’d you end up painting faces?”

GM: Hey, Celia. That’s his ex’s name, if a couple letters poorer.

Celia: “I… just enjoy it. I’ve been into it since I was a kid, really. I go to Tulane, actually, but I’m here part time because this is what I really want to do. My mom helped me get my foot in the door.” She doesn’t mention that a foot in the door is really a tuition check and hiding from her dad. “So I’m at two schools at once. It’s kind of intense. But fun! Very fun.”

Emmett: “That does sound intense,” he agrees, wondering if it’s more or less stressful than working as a whore. He would ask, but he assumes she’s never had sex for money, and he’s never gone to college. So, really, who’s to say?

Celia: Celia asks if he’d like lash extensions for his eyes. Really make them pop, she explains, and tells him the procedure: she’ll put an extension on each one of his normal lashes, a few millimeters longer than his lashes. It’ll give them a nice curl, make them darker, longer, thicker. She can add some volume fans to fill in the gaps.

“The nice thing about extensions,” she tells him, “is that they last for a few weeks, so the first time takes a while to put on but then you come get them filled in every two to three weeks and it doesn’t take as long.”

A while, as it turns out, is two hours. Celia has him stay where he’s at on the table and look up for her so she can tape down his lower lashes, then puts a pair of eye pads beneath either eye to protect his skin. It’s not altogether uncomfortable, but it’s a little weird to feel it for the first time, especially since she showed him the tweezers she was going to use. Sharp. Two of them. Right near his eyes.

The lashes she gives him only go up to 11 millimeters. His own natural lashes are not much shorter, but if she goes too long then the extensions will damage his normal lash, and she doesn’t think that he wants to look like a girl all the time anyway.

“I’m going to follow the natural shape of your eye. Add a little bit longer in the middle, shorter on the ends. It’s what we call a doll-eye look, really opens up your eyes, makes them look a lot bigger. A lot of people like that.”

She explains the fans, too, how she takes three extensions, dips one end in the glue to keep it together, and then puts the fan on one of his lashes. It fills in gaps, makes them look fluffy. Not too many, though, because he’s a boy and only needs them for a special event.

Like the massage, her touch is gentle. He can barely feel it when she starts to work, and rather than pester him with questions about his date and life she lets him sleep. Tells him that a lot of people fall asleep, really, and it’s not a big deal.

All in all, the extensions take about two hours, and she’s glad that she had the time for him. She mists his face with a tiny bit of water to set the glue, dries him with a hand fan, and gently rubs his shoulder to wake him up when it’s done.

The first two parts are done. Now it’s just makeup. Celia excuses herself from the room and lets him know he can get dressed again, and she’ll meet him right outside the room when he’s ready to apply his face. Privacy and all that.

Emmett: He joins her outside after throwing his shirt back on.

“Anyways, I know better than anybody that just because something’s your job doesn’t mean it’s what you’d like. There’s too much pretending in this world. I won’t force somebody to listen to me if they’ve got more important things to talk about.” He chuckles. “Like what they’re going to do when they finish… I think it’s called beauty school, but I wouldn’t know lipstick from a glue stick.”

Celia: “Beauty school is what they called it in the ’50s,” Celia tells him. She leads him to the vanity, where an array of makeup is waiting. Foundation, concealer, powders, blush, eyeshadow pallets, lipsticks in all sorts of colors. There’s an apron around her waist with a veritable army of brushes ready for use.

“Now it’s called cosmetology school if you’re going for hair, or esthetics if you’re for skincare. That’s what I’m doing. Skin, waxing, makeup. And while you do have a point, it’s kind of like… bartending?” It’s a question. “It’s about the experience.” She starts with a concealer to hide the worst of the bruises. It’s a little more yellow than his skin, but she explains the color will correct the purpling.

“Can I see what you’re wearing tonight? Helps me get a good look for the face.”

Emmett: He still has a selfie on his phone that he sent Christina as reference.

The overall vibe is very… “Goldilocks.”

Celia: The photo gives her some clarity on what kind of vibe he’s going for. She nods and gets to work. Foundation, a little more concealer around the bruising to make sure it’s fully hidden, smokes out his eye with neutrals bleeding into dark grays.

“You asked what we do after this?” she says after some time. “I’d like to open my own place. Help people with skincare. I had… less than stellar skin growing up. Acne, all over.”

Hard to see it now behind all the makeup she’s wearing, but there are definitely still spots that cover her cheeks and chin. Her dermatologist couldn’t help much with the fact that she kept picking and scarred her face. But it’s possible he remembers her now—Cecilia’s ‘discount’ friend. The one who was teased about having chicken pox the day she didn’t have time to put on concealer before school.

Emmett: “Who among us, right?” he chuckles, though he absolutely had stellar skin growing up.

Celia: “Esthi school is less of a time investment than derm school. Look up for me, like you’re rolling your eyes.”

She coats his waterline in white, to make his eyes look bigger.

“What do you do?

Emmett: He blinks at her question, then remembers to look up. “Oh, I thought you realized. I’m a whore, sweetie. Well, I kind of prefer gigolo, more syllables, but a rose by any other name, right?”

He’s kind of getting into this whole ‘spa’ thing. He doesn’t even have to worry about maybe seeming gay anymore. Cloud, silver lining?

Celia: His blatant, casual use of the word startles her. She stops what she’s doing. She doesn’t mean to, but she does. Her eyes blink rapidly, confusion coloring her face. She looks down at the brush in her hand, then back to his cheek.

It seems to click.

“Oh!” She leans in. “Like… for men?”

Emmett: “Like for people who pay me. Tonight, that means a man.” He smiles faintly at her. “You thought I was just a pervert?”

Celia: “No. A crossdresser. Close your eyes a sec.” Celia sets what she has done on his face already with powder. She reaches for a blush that’s slightly darker than his skin and explains its contour, to chisel and shape his face. It will narrow his jaw, help bring his chin to a more delicate point.

Makeup is magical like that.

Emmett: He smiles benignly at the correction even as those eyes close indulgently. “That’s real politic of you. That the right word? Not everybody in this city would bother to point out the difference.”

Celia: “Trans… vestites?” Celia says the word slowly. She isn’t sure. Daddy always just called them faggots. “How did you get into that?”

Emmett: His smile persists at her timidity, then sombers at her second question.

“Would you believe I was following my dreams?”

Celia: “How does being a, um, a whore,” she lowers her voice, “help you follow your dreams?”

GM: Well, if Sami Watts is anything to go by, it pays.

Emmett: “It doesn’t, except by giving me something I thought I wanted once. But when you get what you want, you get what once you wanted. I’ve gotten a lot of what I wanted when I was younger. I’m still less than what I was before.”

Celia: Celia’s less sure what to say to that. But highlight follows the contour, then blush. NARS Orgasm, she tells him. Just came out. It has a tiny bit of sparkle, but the color is flattering on pretty much everyone.

Emmett: He laughs when she tells him the name of the brand. “Well, that’s only fitting, I suppose. That’s not going to be the only orgasm on my cheeks tonight.”

Celia: Not the only orgasm on my cheeks tonight. What does that mean? Celia finds the words tumbling out of her mouth before she can stop herself.

“Do you mean he like… finishes on your… face?” She gestures toward her own face, as if she needs to explain further.

Emmett: ‘Elliot’ grins slyly at her. “Well, or my other cheeks. You’ve never talked about stuff like this before, have you?”

He feels like a sixth grader showing a younger kid a dirty picture. It is not an unpleasant feeling, having been on both sides of that exchange in elementary school.

Celia: Cheeks means butt, right? Which means Elliot here is the… woman. Which shouldn’t surprise her. He’s literally here to dress and be made up as a woman. And yet somehow Celia is still taken aback. Flustered, by both his tone and the look he gives her.

Emmett: He’s quiet for a moment. “You have family?”

Celia: She considers lying. But it doesn’t really serve a purpose.

“I, um, no.” She tells him to look down without closing his eyes so she can add the eyeliner.

“Conservative parents. And I only just started seeing someone and he…” she lowers her voice again, “do guys enjoy doing that? Finishing on people’s faces?”

Everything that she has done with Stephen has been new and rather tame compared to what Elliot is telling her.

“Is it, like, sticky?”

Emmett: His laugh is heartier now, but not unkind. “Very conservative parents. You remind me of a girl I knew in high school whose father tried to find out where I lived. And some of us do. Others are more, ah, courteous. I’m sure your beau’s one of the good ones. As for stickiness… ain’t any worse than molasses.” He winks, trying to provoke a laugh.

Celia: She can’t help but picture her boyfriend with molasses spurting from his dick. Elliot gets the giggle he’s going for, quickly stifled by a hand over her mouth.

Celia shouldn’t be talking about this. It’s so unprofessional. And yet… it’s literally his profession. And he started it. And she’s, well, curious. It’s not like she can ask her mom. Poor woman would have a heart attack.

“Why did her dad try to track you down?” she asks instead, finishing the winged liner. She asks if he’d prefer false lashes or mascara.

Emmett: “It’s a silly story. She wanted to be in a movie I was making—to impress another girl, actually, but that’s a longer story. She and her mom both tried out, and the dad called me. He’s this real guff football fan, angry because he likes to know exactly where his little girl is and what kind of project I’m throwing together. He wanted to see the script, that kind of thing. He really starts breathing down my neck all the way across the line, so I kind of… provoked him.”

Celia: “Huh. That does sound like my dad. Why would you provoke him? And what happened when you did?”

GM: Because he hurts less when other people hurt more.

Emmett: “Authority issues, I s’pose,” he says breezily. “What my mom always said, anyways. I was just perfectly polite, but just before I hung up I asked him to give my regards to Diana—and that was his wife’s name,” he smiles shyly. “It’s crazy, I actually found out from his girl later he’s a politician and all. Crazy family.”

Celia: Celia’s brow furrows. “Mom never went out for a—”

She pauses. Clears her throat.

Emmett: He blinks, fucking up her work slightly. “Wait, what?”

Celia: “You made that up.” But she isn’t sure, and her voice lacks any real heat. It’s almost a question, like he has the answer to the game they’ve been playing.

Emmett: “I’m confused. Are you messing with me?” He’s trying to figure out if she’s kidding. “Um, what’s your dad’s name?”

Celia: She should just say she’s kidding. But now she has to know if her mom really did go out for a movie. And if Isabel went with her. To impress a girl. That would explain so much.


Emmett: “Um.” He fidgets. “Shit.”

Celia: Celia crosses her arms, his lips only half lined.

Emmett: He holds up his hands and says, “Look, this is embarrassing. We can pretend I didn’t say anything.”

But please don’t make me have to find another person to make me up like a girl. That’s a lot to put on a guy.

Celia: Celia doesn’t say anything for a moment. He knows who she is. She knows who he is. He may or may not know that she knows. Finally, she leans in to finish lining his lips. It prevents feathering and bleeding, she’d told him earlier. The trick is to use the same color as the lipstick to avoid looking dated. Or like a chola.

“…did you really tell him to give your regards to Diana?” She sounds amused. And impressed.

Emmett: He chuckles despite himself, actually flushing slightly even under all the makeup. “Like I said. Authority issues.”

Celia: “Which of the girls came out for the movie? Isabel?” Lipstick time. Red? She holds up two against his cheek, considering, and finally picks a third. Swipes it on.

Emmett: “Isabel and Diana both tried out, but didn’t know they both wanted a role. The movie never happened, anyways. Things didn’t go as planned.”

Celia: You cheated on Cécilia.

“I heard. Blot.” She presses a tissue against his lips. Then a translucent setting powder. Then more lipstick. “Prevents it from smearing,” she explains. As if he’d asked.

“Do you still make movies?”

Emmett: His voice takes on an edge, but not a very sharp one. “What did you hear? And no. I moved onto the bigger and brighter thing that sits before you.”

Celia: “There was a girl who…” Celia hesitates. “She had photos of you. Of the two of you.” She raises her brows at him, as if asking if she needs to spell it out.

Emmett: He snorts. “Yeah. I’ve seen the pictures. I missed the actual event.”

The bitterness in his voice is real now.

Celia: It takes her a moment. She’s quiet. There isn’t much left to be done with his face; she’s just stalling now, trying to put the pieces together in the brief moment that she has left with him. She shouldn’t have opened her mouth.

She doesn’t ask for permission. She just leans in and hugs him, cheek on his shoulder. She’s careful not to mess up his face.

Emmett: He’s surprised by the gesture, a kinder one than he’s shown to anybody in recent memory. She can feel the tension slide out of his shoulders after a moment, and then a light arm on her back, returning the hug.

He’s careful not to say anything, though. He isn’t sure if he’ll break the spell.

Celia: Celia doesn’t know if the words exist that she can string together to make this situation okay. An apology doesn’t seem to cut it. So she doesn’t say anything, just runs a hand through his hair at the back of his head, like her mom used to do with her. When she finally pulls back she finishes his face with a spritz of setting spray.

“I’m not as crazy as the rest of the family. If you want to come back sometime.” Her smile is warm.

Emmett: He can’t say anything. And for a moment he’s terrified. He wasn’t even trying to, but he’s done the thing he always does.

He’s fooled somebody into thinking he’s good.

If she only knew… but she doesn’t, and he could not tell her if he wanted to.

The only right thing to do is to walk out of her life before he poisons it—like he did to Sami’s, and Ron’s, and his own.

So instead he says, “I think I’d like that.”

Friday evening, 21 November 2008

GM: Celia’s been able to see her mom a lot more since moving to on-campus. But that’s had its own ups and downs.

She’s been thrilled to hear Celia has been making friends (“I guess you really have a lot more chances when you’re livin’ together”) and being able to “be yourself” with her own clothes and makeup. She loves hearing about everything Celia is covering at school—both her schools. Dance is obviously the one more up her alley than esthetics, but that’s the one Celia is obviously the most into, and she even makes trips out to Algiers so that her daughter can practice on her at the student salon. “I’m so happy for you, sweetie, I really am. It feels like you’re just blooming,” she beams.

She’s also in semi-chronic pain from her leg. Celia hadn’t noticed it before, when they couldn’t see each other as often. There’s not much her mom can do but sit down, take some painkillers, and wait for it to pass. She tries not to let Celia see when that happens.

She also still looks tired. She’s working a lot of weekend and after-school hours at the dance studio or giving private lessons. She doesn’t ever seem to buy new clothes and asks if Celia can give her haircuts (“just a basic trim around the edges, nothin’ fancy”) to save on styling costs. They never go out to eat or go shopping together. Meals are always ones her mom cooks at home.

Celia: Celia isn’t as stupid as Daddy says she is. So while her mother doesn’t want to see her when her leg is in pain, an idea begins to form in the back of her mind. She brings it up over one of those home-cooked meals her mom makes, which she loves, both because they get to eat together and because it’s an opportunity for her to learn to cook from someone other than her cooking class instructor. Plus it’s practice. Celia enjoys cooking with her mom, especially since her dad isn’t breathing down her neck about it.

“Hey Momma. My roommate, you know, Emily? She’s in school for pre-med. Kineseiology.” Celia doesn’t quite pronounce it right. “I think she was looking for people to, um, to practice on. Can she look at your leg?”

GM: Celia’s mom is more than happy to teach her how to cook. “It’s really such a useful thing to know. Everyone should learn at least a lil’ bit.” They start off with simple things, like roasted vegetables, which her mom calls “Like a healthy microwavable meal, since all you have to do is toss some olive oil, salt, and pepper over the veggies, then stick ’em in the oven.”

There’s no steak. That’s expensive. Produce is cheap.

The request/offer makes Celia’s mom pause mid-way through adding some mustard seeds to the pan of vegetables.

“I… don’t know how much she could do, sweetie,” her mom demurs. “It’s… it’s what it is.”

Celia: “She can look, though. Maybe give some therapy tips?”

GM: Celia’s mom looks uncomfortable, but demurs with, “All right, if you think so.”

Celia: Celia beams. “I’ll let her know. In other news, I…. met a boy.”

“And he’s my boyfriend.”

“And I want you to meet him.”

“And I like him.”


GM: The smile bursts through on her mom’s face like noonday sun through morning clouds. “A boy!? Oh, sweetie, I’m so happy for you!” she exclaims, clasping Celia’s hands in hers. “Tell me everything, absolutely everything!”

Celia: Celia’s face mirror’s her mother’s. She can’t contain her smile. “His name is Stephen. And we met at a party. And his dad is a lawyer, and he wants to be a lawyer, and he took me on a date and it was amazing and we saw Batman and got pizza and he’s 22 and I really, really like him.”

GM: “Oh, that’s wonderful!” Celia’s mom exclaims, hugging her. “I’m so glad he’s been able to show you those things, you both must have had so much fun goin’ out.”

Celia: “He kissed me.” She’s grinning now, her cheeks flushed.

GM: “Well it’s about time somebody did,” her mom grins back.

“I’m so happy you want me to meet him! We can cook up something extra special, if you want to have him over.”

Celia: “I can’t wait! I think you’ll love him. I’ll bring something to make. We learned a new recipe in class I think you’ll like, too.”

GM: “I know I will, sweetie, if you’re this into him,” her mom smiles. “And that sounds like a great idea! I’d actually meant to ask you somethin’ there, about Tulane’s grocery.”

“If your dad has you on the unlimited meals plan, you could get your meals from the commons while asking him for money to pick up groceries, so you can cook in your dorm. And… you could bring those over to me, when you visit.” Her mom’s smile dims a bit. “It’s just that, things are really tight, with the auto payments and beauty school tuition… every lil’ bit would help, sweetie.”

Celia: “I… I didn’t know…” Celia takes a look at her mom. A real look. At her face, the haggard appearance. She had thought the home-cooked meals was a way to bond, to practice her lessons, the haircuts another way to practice. Her stomach clenches. She wasn’t paying attention.

“Of course, Momma. Of course.” She’ll start saving her tips, too. She doesn’t need more makeup. She can give them to her mom, help pay the car, the gas, the tuition. Maybe see if she can pick up a job with Emily this summer, like they had talked about.

GM: Her mom nods gratefully. “All right, that’s enougha that grim talk. Let’s talk about what we’re goin’ to cook up for your beau…”

Saturday evening, 22 November 2008

GM: If some part of Stephen is still nervous to meet Celia’s other parent after his last experience, it dissolves when his girlfriend’s mom greets him at the door with a wide smile and a warm hug. She declares that “Celia’s had so much to say about you—and yes, all good things! I’m so happy to finally get to meet you, Stephen.”

Stephen looks more than a little relieved. “Me too, ma’am. She said you were a sweetheart.”

“She gives me a lot to feel sweet over,” Celia’s mom answers brightly. “And so did everything she said about you! You want to be a lawyer, right? So does…”

The conversation flows much easier than it did at Celia’s dad’s house. Her mom initially invites her daughter and boyfriend to sit down while she finishes cooking: she and Celia started earlier, since “if we did with your beau already here, and you wantin’ to help cook, that’d leave him plopped on his bum.” Stephen moves to help set the table and pour water. Celia’s mom remarks “what a gentleman” he is. Stephen still seems uncomfortable at the memory of Celia waiting on hand and foot for him and her dad, and says it’s “nothing, really, you did all the cooking.”

Dinner is bacon asparagus pastry twists. The basic idea is asparagus spears grilled with lemon juice, melted parmesan cheese, and the usual staples of salt and pepper. The spears have a long, string cheese-shaped homemade puff pastry wrapped around them. Crispy bacon strips are wrapped around the gaps in the pastry in corkscrew pattern to “clothe” the spears and leave only their heads sticking out. Some egg wash and a garnishing of salt and pepper top off the whole affair. Texture-wise, the twists have are slightly chewy but crispy from the bacon, light and flaky from the pastry, and a chewier crunch underneath that from the asparagus. They’re technically an appetizer, but Celia’s mom made a lot of them, so it feels like a snack with endless refills.

The side dish is mandarin orange salad with the eponymous fruit, lettuce spring mix, cranberries, almonds, and orange juice for dressing. There’s a bit of crunch, but the softness of the oranges (Celia’s mom uses the canned ones that are extra soft without any stringy bits) and the wet greens provides some nice contrast to the asparagus twists, as does the cooler temperature and sweet rather than salty/savory taste. Celia’s mom always advised her to serve side dishes with different textures, flavors, and temperatures than the main dish.

Dessert is chocolate chip cookies. They’re fat, wide, and thick, with lots of half-melted chips buried throughout the dough, and still warm and gooey being served fresh from the oven. Celia’s mom serves them alongside glasses of cool milk for dunking.

Celia’s mother always likes to send her home with food, but insists she’s going to send Stephen home with some cookies too. He eats six and says he has “no complaints at all, ma’am,” to going home with even more. Celia’s mom tells him to “be sure you reheat them in the oven instead of the microwave, you don’t want ’em to get soggy. About five minutes at 300 usually does it.”

“I’ll be sure to remember that, ma’am,” Stephen answers. He sounds like he means it. “All of this was delicious, by the way. I’m so glad Celia and I came over.”

“Oh, I’m so glad you liked it,” his girlfriend’s mom smiles. “Celia helped a lot. She’s such a good cook.”

“I can see where she gets it from. Let me do the dishes.”

“Oh, nonsense, you’re a guest!”

“Please, I’d feel bad if I didn’t,” Stephen says as he gathers up everyone’s plates. “You and Celia spent all that time making everything here.”

Celia’s mom looks like she wants to object, but then rubs her head and truthfully doesn’t seem as if she’d mind someone else doing the housework for once. “Okay. I’ll just make something else nice the next time you and Celia are over.”

“Sounds like a deal, ma’am,” Stephen replies over the sound of the running sink and scrubbing brush. The apartment doesn’t have a dishwasher.

Stephen washes dishes for a bit as Celia and her mom talk. He seems almost uncomfortable about how to bring up… well. His girlfriend’s dad.

He finally segues into it with, “Tonight was a lot more relaxed than at Celia’s dad’s house.” As if wondering if that’s too direct, he adds, “It’s always a little tense meeting a girl’s father.”

The smile on Celia’s mom’s face dims a little. “Oh, well, that’s just dads, I guess. But I’m so glad you can feel relaxed here, Stephen. I’d just love to have you over with Celia again!”

Stephen looks a bit unsure how to proceed from there.

Celia: “He thinks there might be a case against Dad,” Celia says bluntly. She watches her mother’s face.

GM: Her mother looks a bit taken aback. “Oh. A case for…?”

Stephen, seemingly gladdened by Celia broaching the topic first, turns around as he replies, “The abuse, Mrs. Flores.”

“Oh, please, you can call me Diana.”

Her face is very still.

Celia: “Your leg. The kids. All of it, Momma.” Her voice is gentler now.

GM: Her mother’s eyes quickly flick back to hers. Her face remains very still.

“I’m—I’m sorry, what abuse?”

Celia: Celia recognizes that look. She glances at Stephen.


GM: Stephen looks at Celia, then goes on, “She told me all the details. You don’t have to pretend.”

“I just want to help.”

Celia’s mom doesn’t say anything.

Celia: “We don’t have to do anything right now. Just… Mom, just think about it, okay?”

GM: Stephen goes on, “So, with statute of limitations, he can’t be charged with domestic abuse unless he’s done anything to you since. But you could absolutely go to court over this, to get custody of your kids, and to get him removed from office. My dad’s a federal prosecutor. We know lots of lawyers, we’d love to help.”

Celia’s mom still doesn’t say anything.

“There are law firms that do pro bono work, for PR, if money is an issue,” Stephen fills in. “There are definitely ones that would be interested in your case.”

Celia: “Mom. I know you’re scared. But… but it would help them. Isabel and David and Sophia and Logan.” She says their names, all four of them. She has to. “David has anxiety already. He’s almost an adult. And he…”

She can barely breathe. She doesn’t know when she changed her mind to going after Daddy.

“He hurt Isabel. Like the day he hit me. He spanked her. Until she bled, Momma.”

GM: Celia’s mother closes her eyes.

“M-Diana, we could go to the media, get lots of people involved. The scandal alone is likely to sway any judge, if he thinks it’s a bad home environment. Your kids can all testify. It doesn’t have to be just you.”

Stephen looks at Celia. “And if that was recent enough, he could be criminally charged too.”

Her mom still doesn’t say a word.

“Don’t you want to see your kids again?” Stephen presses, finally sounding a little frustrated.

“Of—of course I do!” Celia’s mom whispers hoarsely, finally looking back at them.

“I think about them every single day!”

Celia: “Mom, he’s making me see a doctor. Every semester. To check my—my hymen.” Her cheeks flood with color.

GM: “Wait, what?” Stephen exclaims.

He finally sets down the dishes and sits back down at the table.

Fear instantly steals over her mom’s face. “Oh—tell me you’ve just kissed!”

Celia: Celia’s eyes drop to her plate.


GM: Her mother gasps.

“Oh… OH! Celia, we, we have to fix this! Before he finds out!” Panic rises in her voice. “We have to fix this!”

Celia: “I bought a kit,” she mutters.

GM: “A… a kit?”

Celia: “They’re these… fake hymen things. You put them in and they expand to fill the, um, area, and it’s to… y’know. For girls who…”

Why did I say this.

Stephen is going to leave her for sure. She steals a glance at him, trying to be covert.

GM: “Are you serious? Is your entire family this way?” Stephen asks incredulously.

Celia: Celia glares at her mom.

“Is my whole family afraid of my father and unwilling to do something about it? Yes.”

GM: Celia’s mom ignores Stephen completely as she says, “Okay, a kit. That sounds like an idea. You can… try it out. Around anyone you feel comfortable with. We need to be totally, totally sure this is going to work, to keep your dad from finding out.”

Celia: Celia is almost positive that her relationship with Stephen is over. She shouldn’t have said anything. Her family looks crazy. She looks crazy. But she wants to ask her mom—why? What will happen if Daddy finds out she’s not “pure”?

Just… not in front of Stephen. Maybe there’s a way to salvage this.

“Now do you see why you need to do something, Mom? Isabel and Sophia shouldn’t have to go through this.”

GM: Celia’s mom lowers her gaze.

“There’s nothing I can do, sweetie.”

Her voice is small.

Celia: Celia just humiliated herself for nothing. Her hand curls into a fist on her lap. She blinks back angry tears.

GM: “There is something you can do!” Stephen says angrily. “There are law firms, my dad has connections! You could get your kids back and stop having to buy a—a frigging hymen kit every semester!”

Celia’s mother doesn’t raise her head.

“There’s nothing I can do,” she repeats in that small voice.

“Please… please don’t tell anyone about this.” She looks up at Stephen entreatingly. “Please, don’t tell anyone.”

Celia: “He’s not going to tell, Mom. Just… think about it, okay? What he’s doing is not okay. And you can stop it.” Celia pushes back from the table. “He’s sick. He’s sick and he’s making the whole family sick. I was lucky that you were there for fourteen years with me. The others aren’t.”

GM: “…how old is your youngest sibling?” asks Stephen.

Celia: “Logan is 11.”

GM: “So… he was six, when you left?” He looks back at Celia’s mom. “He’ll have had to grow up basically his whole life without you.”

“He’d have been in… first grade? I remember barely anything about first grade.”

Celia’s mom doesn’t say anything to that.

But her eyes look moist.

She presses her head to her palm.

Celia: Celia steals a glance at Stephen. He’s good at this. She wonders how much of it is him, and how much is growing up in a family full of lawyers. She gives him a nod, as if to say “keep going.”

GM: At that affirmative look from his girlfriend, Stephen goes on, “He’s going to forget you. He’s going to forget everything about you. Everything that your asshole ex doesn’t fill his head with. He told me you were dead when I visited.”

Celia: Celia flinches. She had forgotten that. She didn’t think Stephen would bring it up.

GM: Tears run through her mom’s hand. She still doesn’t say anything.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Stephen says. “He’s 11. That’s a lot of time to still grow up with you. And away from that sick fuck.”

Celia’s mom doesn’t say anything about the profanity.

Celia: “He needs you, Mom. They all do.”

GM: “Look, I’ll talk to my dad, and get a lawyer to talk with you. That’s all you have to do at this point. Just talk to a lawyer.”

Celia: “I need you. I needed you to do what I actually want to do. How do you think they’re feeling? And they’ll grow up just like him. Isabel will marry someone like him who hits her. David will grow up to hit someone. Is that what you want for them?”

GM: Celia’s mom hangs her head.

“They don’t need me.”

Her voice is so small. Celia has to strain her ears to hear.

“I’m too weak.”

Celia: “When are you going to stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something? Would you want me to roll over for him? What would you do if I told you that Stephen broke my legs to keep me from dancing? ‘Sorry sweetie that’s too bad?’ Are you somehow less than because it happened? You let him get into your head. You’re letting him win. If you don’t fight then… then how can you expect any of us to?”

GM: Celia’s mother has no answer to that. Tears trickle down her face.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I’m so sorry…”

Stephen gives Celia a look.

Celia: Celia doesn’t know what that look means. Did she go too far? Should she go further? There are tears in her own eyes. She wipes them away, shaking her head at him. She doesn’t know what else to say.

GM: Stephen wraps his arm around Celia’s shoulder in a brief squeeze, then gets up and gets a sticky note from the counter. He scrawls something onto it and presses it into her mom’s hands.

“That’s my phone number, and my dad’s number. If you ever change your mind.”

“That’s… kind of you,” her mom manages.

“You’re welcome. Look, I… it feels like time for me to go. Celia, do you want me to drop you off at Tulane, or to stay with your mom?”

Celia: “I have to get back. Told Emi we’d study for Bio together tonight.”

Celia moves around the table to hug her mom. She pulls her close. “I love you, Momma. I know you’re scared. Just think about it. I love you.” She kisses her cheek.

She has no idea what she’s going to stay to Stephen on the way back, just that she needs to talk to him while this is still fresh. Before he can decide he wants to run.

GM: Celia’s mom sniffs and hugs her tightly back. “I love you, sweetie. I love you too, so much.”

“Go study. I’m so glad you’re studying. I’m so glad you’re going to beauty school.”

Stephen gives a puzzled look.

“I’m, I’m so glad you’re in my life. That you’re… you’ll practice, with the hymen kit? With someone?”

Celia: “Oh my God, Mom. Stop.” Celia pulls away. “I will, but… stop.” She gives a pointed look toward Stephen, though she doesn’t meet his eye.

GM: “O… okay, sweetie.” Her mom sniffs again and rubs Celia’s arm. “I just want you to be okay.”

“Oh,” she exclaims, “I almost forgot!”

She gets up to fill some Tupperware containers with chocolate chip cookies.

“You and Emily can munch on, on a few of these when you’re studying.”

Celia: “Thanks, Momma. Emily will love these.”

GM: “Oh, I’m so glad she will. And why don’t you take the asparagus twists too, those were just sinfully good,” she says, dropping them into containers as well. “Would you like some salad, too? Stephen, would you like any cookies?”

There’s a brief pause before he answers, “Yes please, ma’am. Those were great.”

Celia: “Mom.” Celia puts a hand on her mother’s arm. “Just the cookies.” She gives her a private look.

GM: “Okay, no salad. But at least a few twists, I could tell how much you liked those.”

“And thank you, Stephen, I really am so glad you liked them.”

Celia: “They won’t reheat well in a microwave,” Celia laughs. She starts toward the door.

GM: “Okay. I’ll freeze them, for when you next come over,” her mom says. “We ate most and they’re good appetizers, by themselves.”

There’s some last hugs and exchanged goodbyes as Celia and Stephen put on coats. They’re sincere enough. But the warmth and relaxation from earlier in the evening isn’t there. This feels a little more desperate. Wanting things to go back to the way they were earlier.


300 degrees. Five minutes.

At least Celia can still do that with the cookies.

Saturday night, 22 November 2008

GM: Celia and her boyfriend get into the latter’s car with the Tupperware containers.

“Well,” he says as he starts the engine.

“She’s… nice, like you said.”

Celia: “You think we’re crazy,” Celia says quietly.

GM: “A little.”

There’s a pause.


Her boyfriend gives a sigh as he looks over the wheel.

Celia: “Do you want to break up?” She sounds resigned.

GM: “Uh.”

Stephen sounds a little taken aback.

Celia: She looks out the window. She doesn’t want him to see that she’s crying.

GM: “I… just tell your dad we are,” Stephen finally says. “I am not spending another second with him. Just no way.”

Celia: “I hate him.”

It’s the first time she’s said the words since she was twelve.

GM: “I don’t blame you. It’s… beyond fucked up. All of it.”

Celia: “I thought staying here was doing the right thing. But now I don’t know if there is a right thing.”

GM: “Well, I think your mom’s glad to have you.”

Celia: "The others won’t talk to her. Just me. And we had to hide it. Only when my dad was out of town…

GM: “Does she have anyone else in her life?”

Celia: “Like a guy, you mean? I… I don’t think so, no.”

GM: “Well, guy, family, whatever. But if not, I think staying sounds right.”

“I mean, Liberty University is crazy. I’d never want to go to college there. Probably why your dad’s okay with it.”

Celia: “I’m in cos school.” The words come out in a rush. “My mom mentioned it. I didn’t tell you. I didn’t mean to lie, it just never came up.”

GM: There’s a pause.

“…why wouldn’t you tell me? I asked about your major.”

Celia: “My major is dance.”

“And I’m also enrolled in another school.”

“And I didn’t know you at the time, and it… never came up again.”

GM: “Yeah, but I also asked what you wanted to do. And… all this time we’ve been going out.”

“I see your psycho dad calling you stupid and saying he’ll kill me with his bare hands if we have sex, but you can’t tell me you’re in cos school?”

Celia: “Because you told me you wanted to be a lawyer and I… felt really stupid. Like I’m… you heard the way he talks to me, and I know you would never do that, I know that, but his voice is in my head telling me I’m stupid. We had dinner and I asked what he thought I should study and he said ‘something that helps you find a husband,’ because that’s what he thinks of me, that’s all I’m worth to him, and there you were at the party and you were smart and interesting and when you asked it just felt like I’d be letting you down somehow because it’s like… it’s skincare. And makeup. And talking about it makes me feel so—so stupid.”

There’s that word again. Stupid. Her dad calls her stupid. Her teacher called her stupid. And now Stephen is probably thinking the same thing: stupid, crazy, psycho.

“Some—someone said that estheticians are just girls who are too stupid to go to medical school to be dermatologists.”

GM: Stephen doesn’t say anything for a few moments.

“Uh, what’s an esthetician?”

Celia: “The girls who do facials and waxing and makeup.”

GM: “Oh. Well. That doesn’t sound like the same thing as a dermatologist. They don’t do makeup.”

Celia: She can’t tell if he’s making fun of her or not. She doesn’t say anything.

GM: “So why are you majoring in dance, though, if that’s what you really want to do?”

Celia: “Because it’s easy and it lets me focus on that. And I do like dancing. And I didn’t know what else to do.”

GM: “Yeah, but you don’t need to go to college if you’re going to trade school.”

“I mean, I think. Do they like estheticians with BAs?”

Celia: “He doesn’t know about it.”

GM: “Oh.”

Celia: “My mom knew. And now you.”

GM: “That’s… your dad’s sort of all over your life, do you realize?”

Celia: “I don’t know how to get out.”

GM: “The abuse is abuse. It’s horrible, but… it’s a normal horrible.”

“It’s really weird you’re going to college just to hide going to trade school. Or at least, that you have to.”

Celia: “I know. I just think… if I leave, I won’t get to see my siblings. He’ll cut me off from them. And then they have nothing.”

She sounds like her mom, she realizes. Too afraid of him to do anything about it.

GM: “Ah. Yeah. I was going to say, you could just walk out, even if your mom is scared of him.”

“Unless she gets custody… I don’t think there’s really any way around that. And she doesn’t seem like she wants to pursue that.”

Stephen thinks.

“Though if something happened again, you could report it to the cops without her.”

Celia: “…something like what?”

GM: “Spanking your sister until she bled. That’s definitely battery, at the least.”

Celia: “What if it was something with me? I’m not a minor. Does it matter?”

GM: “It can, in various ways, but spanking you is absolutely a criminal offense. If your dad was charged with something that’d go a ways in making him lose custody.”

Celia: “Would he have to pay my mom child support?”

GM: “That’s up to the judge, but it’d be an insane one who didn’t require him to, given how much less money she obviously makes.”

“What’s her job, again?”

Celia: “She’s a teacher. Dance teacher.”

GM: “Oh, that’s right, you’d said.”

“That’s weird, though. Just a dance teacher, versus a general performing arts teacher?”

Celia: “She’s been picking up a few various things to make ends meet.”

Because of me, Celia thinks, but doesn’t say. She sinks lower into her seat.

“Just dance, I think. Unless it’s changed.”

GM: “Well, that’d be weird. Because having a teacher specifically for dancing suggests a pretty well-funded school. And they make okay money at those.”

Celia: “McGehee.”

GM: “I mean, okay money. Like, tight to raise a family on, but okay if it’s just you. Or even pretty good if it’s just you.”

“Your mom looked really poor. Er, no offense.”

Celia: “She… did,” Celia says slowly. “She’s helping fund cos school… and she got a car… but it was used…” Celia trails off.

GM: “Well, you should be able to afford a car. Definitely a used car. And how much is cos school?”

Celia: “Um. JJ’s was 10.”

GM: “10 grand? And that’s spaced over, what, two years?”

Celia: “No, it’s just 750 hours. You have to pay at various points, but like… eight months.”

GM: “Okay, so a bit more, but… that’s really weird. Your mom’s apartment looked about as big as mine. And I’m a college student with just a part-time job.”

Celia: “You think she’s spending on something else? Like… drugs?”

Celia can’t see it.

GM: “Well, either she’s spending it on something else, or she’s getting paid a lot less than other McGehee teachers.”

“They don’t make good money, but she should be able to afford more than just a studio and a used car.”

Celia: “She asked me to cut her hair a few times. A trim. We don’t do hair in my program. And… I’m on a meal plan… and she asked me to bring groceries with it…”

GM: “Like, buy groceries for her?”

Celia: “Yeah. That’s why I didn’t want to take anything tonight.”

GM: “Geez. That’s really weird. Something’s up with your mom’s money.”

“Which I guess isn’t my business, but a judge is likely to think about those things when child support comes up.”

Celia: “I should have noticed that.”

How could she not have seen?

GM: “Even if she made normal teacher money, I’d be very surprised if a judge still didn’t mandate child support. Four kids is a lot and your dad is obviously well-off.”

Celia: “I… think I know someone I can talk to about this.”

GM: “Oh, who?”

Celia: “My grandmother. Payton Underwood.”

GM: “I know her. She’s a judge.”

“She sounds like a great person to talk to. She could give way better advice than me.”

Celia: “You give pretty great advice, though.”

GM: “Yeah, because I’m smart and grew up around a bunch of lawyers,” Stephen smirks. “But I’m still not an actual lawyer with decades of experience as a judge.”

“What do you want to do about your dad, anyways?”

Celia: “I… just don’t want him to be able to hurt anyone ever again. And I don’t want to talk to him. Or have to go to the doctor and lie about being a virgin. Or worry that he’s doing to disown me. Or worry that he’s going to kill my mom, or hit my siblings. I don’t want him to control me anymore. So whatever that looks like.”

GM: “Well, he doesn’t control you. You’re an adult. You could just cut off contact with him. And if you’re not really going to college, no loss if he cuts you off there.”

“But I don’t think there’s really anything you can do for your brothers and sisters, besides reporting him to the cops or your mom starting a custody battle. Or both.”

Celia: “You think I should… walk away?”

That’s what he’s saying, isn’t it? Walk away. Leave her siblings to their fate. She isn’t doing anything for them anyway, he said as much, and she has been feeling that since the beginning. It’s her fault that he hit Isabel.

Cut off. No money. She’d have to get a job, like Emily. She’s never worked before.

The thought is terrifying.

And also… intriguing.

GM: “I think so. You’re going to finish cos school pretty soon, so you’d get a job.”

“It’s a completely poisonous environment with your dad.”

Celia: She could start moving her stuff out. Say she’s taking it to college. Then just not come home after school ends. Pretend she ran off with a boy. She’d have to find an apartment. Maybe her mom? Or… Stephen…?

She doesn’t look at him. That’s too soon.

She’s lose everything. All sense of stability. And yet… how stable is it, really, to walk on eggshells? It’s not like she doesn’t have another… another dad. That she’s never spoken to. Who doesn’t know she exists.

“It is,” she agrees, faintly.

Cos school finishes during fall semester. If she can hold out during the summer… and fall? Register for classes. Let him pay. Drop. Take the refund. She’d heard of other people doing that with their loans.

Or just go. Now. Run.

GM: “Well, it’s up to you.”

“I just know there’s no way in hell I’m sitting through another dinner with your dad. I don’t want anything to do with him.”

Celia: “I told you I’d make it up to you. I don’t actually have plans to study tonight.”

GM: “Oh, I think you do. Biology is hard, right?”

He grins.

“Let’s get in some anatomy practice…”

Celia I, Chapter I
College Romance

“We always want to romanticize ugly things.”
Stephen Garrison

Tuesday evening, 24 June 2008

GM: Celia’s mom is elated at the news her daughter is going to Tulane and wants to major in dance. She asks her if she wants to come over to her apartment when her dad is away on legislative business in Baton Rouge. “It’s been four years since we’ve seen each other, sweetie… maybe we should stop livin’ in so much fear.”

Celia has to take the bus there, as her mom admits to not owning a car. The building is in Broadmoor, a predominately black and lower-class neighborhood. It’s pretty sketchy-looking. Paint peels from graffiti-tagged walls outside. Inside, there’s stains and crud on the mucus-colored carpet, which doesn’t look as if it’s been vacuumed in ages. Celia can hear people arguing past their units’ thin walls.

Her mother’s apartment is very small. There’s a bedroom, a combined kitchen/dining room, and that’s it. The bathroom is communally shared. The bed is a small futon without a mattress or bed frame. There’s a few posters of ballet dancers and photos of the Flores children that aren’t actually photos: they’re printed paper copies that look taken from their online Facemash albums. There are three ‘real’ pictures of Celia, Isabel, and Sophia that look like their McGehee school portraits. Maybe Celia’s mom was able to sneak copies from the school photographer.

Celia’s mom has more lines along her face than she remembers. Diana hugs her daughter tightly for a long time, strokes her hair, and repeats how proud she is of her graduation, how much it means to see her again, and how thrilled she is to hear about her intended major.

“But are you sure that’s what you want as a career, sweetie? Dance was always more my dream than yours… I admit it’s a lil’ bit of a surprise to hear you want to go into it now.”

Celia: Celia does not comment on the run-down building, the marks that line her mother’s face, or the photos that she has taken from the internet in lieu of having any of her own. She had not realized what the separation did to her mother. She did not want to know. Easier to pretend that it had not happened. She tells herself that she will bring photos the next time she visits.

“Momma… I have something to tell you, actually. You can’t tell anyone, okay? It can’t get back to Daddy or he’ll pull me from school or, or something.”

GM: Celia’s mom nods somberly as they sit down to dinner. She knows better than anyone what sorts of things her ex-husband might do.

“Of course, sweetie. I won’t tell a soul.”

The meal is also a modest affair: veggie fried rice with broccoli, green beans, red peppers, mushrooms, eggs, bamboo shoots and peas. She looks as if she has put effort into the dinner, but could not afford to get anything too expensive.

Celia: “I love dance. I do. But… I mean, Mom, I wouldn’t make it in the professional circuit. And Daddy has expressed to me very clearly that he wants me to be a perfect wife for someone. So while I have a very real interest in dance, I won’t kid myself into thinking that it is my calling.” She pauses. She paces.

“I want to go to school for skincare.” The words come out in a rush.

GM: “Oh, Celia, that’s wonderful!” her mom beams, squeezing her hand. “You were always so into makeup and face painting as a kid… I’m just sorry you haven’t been able to practice since…”

She seems to relive that memory for a second, then banish it before continuing,

“You’ll be wonderful at it, I just know. It doesn’t even take that long to get licensed, does it—around six months?”

Celia: “If I go full time.” Celia beams. She is happy to have her mother’s support with this, and pleased that she can finally talk to someone about it.

“It’s 750 hours, but it’s kind of… like there’s full time or part time I saw, and I thought with school it would be easier to do part time, and Daddy is pretty adamant about college so full time seemed like a lot, but I don’t know how I’m going to explain being away so much. I asked for a car but he said no and most of the schools are on the other side of town, so I thought maybe I could say I got a job but then I think he’d ask why I want to work and then he’d expect me to bring home money or something so I’m just very… I’m trying to figure it out. He won’t let me live on campus.”

GM: Her mother’s brow furrows in thought. “Yes… I suppose that’s not a surprise for your father… and you shouldn’t have to wait four years to follow your dreams… you should never, ever put those off.”

She seems to think some more.

“What if I got you a car? Would you be able to go to one of those schools?”

Celia: “I…” Celia hesitates. She doesn’t mean to look around the apartment, but she does.

“Mom, I can’t ask you to get me a car. I appreciate it, but… where would I keep it? I’ll still have to disappear from home. It would be easier if I got to stay on campus, even if it’s not that far away, because then I’d have an excuse… did you know it’s a rule that you have to but Daddy said he was going to make Mr. McGregor waive the requirement?”

GM: Her mom follows her gaze with a rueful smile.

“I’m not rich, sweetie, we can both tell that. But I’ll… I’ll make it work.”

“Teach at dance academies after school and on weekends too, maybe. I can also look for families that want private lessons for their daughters. I love teachin’ dance, it’s not really extra work.”

“You could leave the car here with me. I guess it’d be our car, really.”

“And yes, you’d need a story…” Her mom seems to think. “Maybe fib to your father that you’re volunteering at McGehee? Little Gate always wants more volunteers.”

“I can get you some official-looking volunteer slips if he wants proof, just don’t ask to have the hours on any transcripts or resumes.”

Celia: “Isabel hates me and she’d tell.” Celia flops onto a chair, hands thrown up in exasperation.

GM: It’s a fold-out and one of the apartment’s only two chairs. There’s no other furniture besides the kitchen table.

Her mom thinks. “Isabel doesn’t ever really spend time around Little Gate, that I’ve seen. She’s never really liked little kids. I think we could pull it off.”

Then she gets a look.

“What about money, sweetie? How much does it cost? With how much your dad makes, I don’t know that you’ll qualify for financial aid…”

Celia: Celia hadn’t even considered the cost. Her face falls.

“Oh. I… you’re right. It depends on the school, but… I’ve seen anywhere from eight to ten thousand.”

GM: Her mom actually looks relieved when Celia quotes the figure. “Okay… that’s a lot cheaper than college, and that isn’t too much on top of a car… I think I can make it work, so long as there’s a payment plan.”

“And maybe if you wait a semester, so I have time to save up and make a bigger down payment.”

Celia: “Or I could… ask for a bigger allowance? And save?”

GM: Her mom gives an even more relieved nod. “Oh, yes please, sweetie. I can make this work, but every lil’ bit will definitely help.”

Celia: “Maybe I really could pick up a job…” She wonders how her father would feel about that and resolves to ask him when he gets home.

“I’m glad you’re on board. I’m really excited about it. Plus now I can practice on you.” Celia beams.

GM: “That’s right!” her mom beams back. “Say, if you want to get back in the groove now… I don’t have a full beauty studio in here, but I do have makeup. How long’s it been since you got to use any?”

Celia: “Besides the concealer? Oh my, six years?” Celia’s eyes dart around the apartment for wherever her mother keeps her bag of goodies.

GM: Her mom chuckles. “I was goin’ to send you home with some cookies, but maybe you’d like a helping of what’s in my makeup bag too.” Her smile briefly fades. “Just keep it under your mattress, or someplace secret.”

Celia: “I… I can’t risk it, Mom. I’d love to, but it’s…”

She trails off. The concealer is one thing. She can explain away concealer to her father. Maybe. But makeup? He won’t go for that. She hadn’t even had the courage to bring it up over dinner.

“He said I could start dating now, though.”

GM: “You could put it on on campus, sweetie, and take it off when class is over,” her mom suggests. Then she winks. “Besides, you’ll have more admirers to get dolled up for, now.”

Celia: “I wouldn’t even know what to do with an admirer.” Celia averts her gaze, cheeks flushed. “Cécilia got to date all through high school, and even though it didn’t always end well—you know, with Emmett and all—it was still… something. I just have books and movies.” Not even TV shows, no TV in the house.

GM: There’s no TV in this house either, for that may be worth.

Celia’s mom gently lifts up her chin and smiles. “There’s other girls at Tulane who are in the same boat as you, you know. Boys, too. And there are so many people from out of town, away from their families. And you’re all young, still figuring out who you are, and getting used to being on your own for the first time. Most everyone there is a fish outta water.”

Celia: “So we can all be awkward together?” Celia can’t help but laugh. “Can’t wait for that. Actually… I guess it will be nice being on the same level as everyone…”

GM: Her mom smiles again and squeezes her hand. “This’ll be a new start for you, sweetie. I can’t wait for it.”

Wednesday evening, 17 September 2008

GM: Tulane is and isn’t a new start. Actually getting to interact with boys on campus is novel, though when she’s still living at home, college feels like an extension of high school.

She even has a number of former classmates who go there. She shares a sociology class with Samantha Watts, who remarks what a delight it is to see her former classmate again. They really should hang out sometime. She’s all smiles on the outside, especially to their sociology professor, who seemingly takes a dislike to Celia and grades her work incredibly harshly. Sami is so sympathetic about the bad grades. Maybe she’d like to be a study buddy.

Celia: Celia is cautiously optimistic about Sami’s invitation to study. She asks when and where Sami would like to get together, and makes sure to let her dad know that she’ll be staying on campus a little later that day so he doesn’t worry.

GM: Sami is happy to come over to Celia’s house, she says. They study. They chat. They bond.

Then Sami has to use the bathroom. Celia pays for her trust with a broken toilet and a huge stash of marijuana and porn magazines left all throughout the completely trashed bathroom, when the clock is rapidly ticking on how long before her dad arrives home.

Celia: Bitch. Celia knew it was too good to be true. Payback for high school? How plebian.

At least it’s just the one room. Celia does her best to clean the bathroom and dispose of everything before her father arrives home, though there is little she can do about the toilet.

GM: The crap in the bathroom is the easiest to clean up. Some air freshener gets rid of the scent of weed. It’s rooting out the porn mags tucked into innocuous places throughout the rest of the house that takes the most effort. Still, Celia thinks she’s gotten the last of them with just a few minutes left in the clock when Isabel confronts her outside the garbage bins with a nonplussed expression.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Celia: “I misjudged someone at school and she invited herself over. Made a mess.” Celia puts the lid on the can. “Cleaning up after her.” She rubs a hand over her face. “I don’t know why I thought she changed at all. She did something like this back then too.”

GM: “Yeah, right,” retorts the 16-year-old. “I wonder what Daddy would think, if he knew about this.”

Celia: “He’d beat me black and blue, like he used to do to Mom,” Celia snaps at her. “And then make up new rules about college and boys and dating that will come down just as hard on you. Bag searches before and after school. How’s that sound?”

GM: “You’re lying! Daddy never did that!” Isabel flares.

Celia: “You’re right. Our ballerina mom fell down the stairs.”

GM: “And you’re not supposed to EVER say her name! We don’t have a mom!”

Celia: “I didn’t. But my advice to you, Isabel, whatever it is worth, is to get the hell out of here as soon as you can.”

GM: “Why would I do that?” Isabel huffs. “I’m not the one who’s breaking rules and hiding… smut, and blaming it on that woman who used to be our mom.”

“We were happy!” she suddenly exclaims. “We were happy until she ruined everything! I can’t believe you’re taking her side!”

“You’ve never believed Daddy! You’re always, always lying to him! I see it! How you think he’s a liar, how you smile to his face, but behind it, you’re just a fucking LIAR!”

She slaps Celia hard across the face.


Celia: Celia doesn’t say anything to her sister. She turns and walks away, her face stinging from her sister’s open-handed blow. Her cheeks burn. But she waits for Daddy, to show him the mark Isabel left on her face, to explain to him how she caught her little sister with weed and porn and was assaulted for her trouble. How Isabel screamed at her that she was a liar, how she blames Celia for everything, and thinks she’s betraying the family by continuing to dance.

GM: Daddy isn’t home before long.

His face grows utterly still at Celia’s story.

Isabel desperately tells, well, the truth.

It’s not that the mark on Celia’s face doesn’t lie.

It’s that it does lie—very, very well, when paired with its owner’s silver tongue.

Maxen considers his daughters, then grabs Isabel, pulls down her skirt and underwear, pulls her onto his lap, and brings down his hand with a sharp, too-familiar smack.

Isabel yelps and shrieks, “Daddy! Daddy, wha-” But it’s one thing to get spanked at 12 and another to get spanked at 16. Maxen seems to think so too. He doesn’t tell her it’ll stop when she says sorry.

He just doesn’t stop.

Isabel’s shrieks become screams. She writhes and flails. Celia’s dad tells her to help hold her sister down. The muscular ex-quarterback’s palm comes down, again and again and again, until the skin on Isabel’s rear turns from pink to red, and then red to white, but with angry red hand-shaped imprints. It starts to smell like blood. Tears gush down Isabel’s face as she screams her pain, fury, and humiliation.

Maxen doesn’t ask her to say sorry.

She does that all on her own.



Celia: Celia does not want to watch. Her stomach churns. It brings to mind her own humiliation at her father’s hand. But that was different. She was just a child then. This… Isabel is almost a woman now. It is different.

She does not want to watch, but she will not disobey her father. When he tells her to hold Isabel down she reaches out, letting Isabel dig her nails into her wrists, letting her squeeze her hands and send some of that pain her way. Her lip trembles, but it is nothing compared to what Isabel is feeling.

And the blood. It hits her and she reels. Her cheeks are wet.

“Daddy, please, I think she learned her lesson.”

GM: “Oh, no, sweetie. She’s not even started.”

Maxen stares down at his sobbing daughter.

“Drugs. Filth. In my house.”

Celia: “Dad, please, she’s bleeding.”

GM: Isabel blubbers apologies.

“Where did you get it from, Isabel?” their dad asks.

“I… I… I…” she gets out.

Their dad lifts his hand again.

Isabel screams and sobs incoherently.

Celia: “Wait. Daddy. There was a girl here. After school. Isabel said it was hers. I didn’t believe her. Maybe… maybe it was.”

GM: Celia’s dad looks at her.


Her hands hurt. Isabel dug into them good with her nails.

Celia: Celia describes Samantha Watts.

“I think we went to school with her. She didn’t like either one of us. I… is that right, Isabel?”

GM: Isabel furiously nods her head, tears still running down her beet-red face.

“Okay,” their dad says thoughtfully.


“I’ll look into this Samantha girl.”

Celia: Celia nods. She asks him if she can draw a bath for Isabel, and if he has anything she can use on her skin for the welts in his bathroom.

GM: “N-no,” Isabel croaks.

There’s a shaky but comically wide smile on her face as she stares up at their dad.

“I… I’ll re… member… better… this way…”

She gives an almost manic little giggle as a few tears run down her face.

“I’ll… I’ll never… forget… Daddy… I’ll never… disobey…”

“Th… thank you… Daddy… thank you… thank you…”

Their dad kisses her head.

“You’re a good girl, Isabel.”

Isabel makes another shrill, excited noise that might be a sob or a giggle. A few more tears leak down her cheeks, but she’s grinning from ear to ear.

“Th… thank you… Daddy… I love you…”

“I love you too, sweetie,” he says.

Celia: Celia excuses herself from the room.

GM: Her last sight is of their dad tenderly tucking Isabel in to an early bed.

“Check on your sister in a few hours please, Celia. I want to be sure she’s okay.”

Celia: “Yes, Daddy.”

Friday evening, 3 October 2008

GM: Celia’s mom conversationally asks how Isabel is doing over their next dinner together. She loves having Celia over and cooking meals for her. She doesn’t even look sad when she asks the question.

Celia: “She’s… angry. She hates me. She hates you. She blames you for leaving and ruining everything. She loves Daddy. He hit her and she thanked him for it.”

GM: Her mom’s smiling face falls.

Dinner isn’t the same after that.

Wednesday afternoon, 8 October 2008

GM: Samantha Watts stops attending Sociology 101. Some time later, though, Celia watches as Samantha Watts drives up to President McGregor’s mansion in a flashy red sports car and gets out, dressed in a tight-fitting dress with a suggestive neckline, high heels, and makeup. The sorts of clothes Dad never lets Celia wear. About an hour or two later, Samantha drives back out of the mansion with flushed skin, smudged makeup, and messier-looking hair.

She looks up at Celia’s bedroom window, smirks, and gives a little wave.

Celia: Celia snaps a photo on her phone. Just in case.

GM: Samantha rolls her eyes and drives off.

There are some very loud arguments coming from the front door of the McGregor house later at night. It sounds like between the university president and Celia’s dad.

He’s in a dark mood for a while, until she mentions the picture. Samantha Watts finally stops showing up to class after that. But Dad and Mr. McGregor never say hello to each other anymore.

Celia starts to meet her share of boys, too. Edward Cherry is the son of the Democratic Senate majority leader, Noelle Cherry, and a junior in the Marines ROTC. He seems interested in her.

Dad wouldn’t approve of his daughter dating a Democrat. But he also might see opportunity. Or he might forbid Celia to ever speak to the guy.

Celia: Celia plays by the rules. Of course she talks to Daddy about Edward. She brings him up when the two have a moment alone to gauge his response. She is candid about who he is.

She doesn’t want to be bent over his knee for lying.

GM: Dad would never disrespect his daughters by using them as pawns in a political game. He tells Celia to stay away from the boy and that she’s a good girl for telling him.

Celia: Celia does not push back. She thanks her father for the advice; she was concerned that Edward was only interested because of who Maxen is. She wants to know if all boys are like this, or if she’ll be able to find someone who loves her and not her name or her connections. Not that she has her own connections, she is quick to add, she just means him.

GM: “Of course you will, sweetie,” her dad answers her. “I’d love a woman for who she was. There are other good men out there.”

Fall’s 2008 semester rolls along. It’s shortly before midterm freshman grades are posted that Celia’s mother presents her with a tuition check and car: a pink Volkswagen Beetle. She bought it used.

“It’s not the flashiest ride, sweetie, but it’ll get you to beauty school…”

Her mom looks tired, even if Celia’s makeup brush covers it well. She’s been working a lot of extra hours at the kids’ dance academy, and giving private lessons to affluent girls when more hours there aren’t available.

But her smile at seeing this day finally come looks oh so proud.

Celia: Celia is ecstatic. She has been dutifully handing over bits of her allowance to her mother, but the small portion that she had managed to save pales in comparison to what her mother put away. The check goes into her pocket with a kiss on her mother’s cheek, and when she sees the car there is a pause. Used Volkswagen Beetle. She looks to her mother… and swings her around in a dance, giddy, her face lit up in a genuine smile. The car is pink and it is adorable and she doesn’t care that it is used because she loves it, and she loves her mom, and she is finally stepping into her dream. She cannot wait to enroll in beauty school.

GM: Celia’s mom laughs with delight at her daughter’s glee. It’s a full and free sound, like before the divorce, before the abuse. She nimbly steps into the dance, matching Celia step for step. She lets her daughter lead, but lifts her arm over Celia’s head so she can execute a dramatic spin turn.

“Oh, Celia… I’m so thankful to still have you in my life,” her mom exclaims, hugging her.

“I can’t wait to go to whatever salon you work at. I want to be your very first first client.”

Celia: “I love you, Momma. So much.” Celia hugs her mother close. She’s glad of what this means for her: an end to the extra dance lessons, an end to the bags beneath her eyes.

“Of course you’ll be my first client. Of course you will. And any time you need an appointment or anything all you have to do is call me and I’ll put you in right away. And I’ll have my own place. A whole bunch of my own places! All over New Orleans! I’ll be the new… the new Vidal Sassoon or Michelle Phan or something.”

GM: “I love you too, sweetie. Every bit as much.” Her mom beams at her next words, even if she doesn’t look like she recognizes who Michelle Phan is.

“You’ll be you, Celia. And it’ll be the whole city that knows…”

Sunday morning, 13 January 2008

GM: There turns out to be a hidden blessing to the tiff with Sami Watts: Celia is required to live on-campus like a normal student. There’s a very formal-and threatening-sounding letter in the mail that essentially says she will be expelled (and have a black mark on any transfer transcript) if she doesn’t start following the university’s rules. It arrives literally the day before winter break ends, seemingly to inconvenience the Flores family as much as possible. It certainly does that, because on top of having to get Celia moved out at the last minute, there’s no time to fight it, much less transfer her to Liberty University. Her father’s anger is tempered only by the fact that Josephine Louise House is a girls-only dorm that doesn’t permit unescorted male visitors. He tells Celia she will see the gynecologist every semester and take random drug tests when she comes home (after all, it’s still only a 4-minute walk away). There is to be no wild partying.

Celia’s mom is elated by the news. They’d already had a plan for how to juggle beauty school (she’d even had Celia volunteer at Little Gate during the designated beauty school hours to “build up the fib as much as possible, so you can talk about what it’s like around your dad”), but that should buy some more breathing room. And let them see each other more, instead of only when Maxen is in Baton Rouge.

Celia: Celia, personally, is elated by the news that she gets to live on campus. Home is still just down the road, so she is close to her family, but she experiences the first bit of freedom in her life. She gets to buy makeup and keep it on campus. She gets to see her mom more frequently. She gets to join clubs and not have to text her dad every time she’s running late. She doesn’t have to make up a lie about beauty school. The drug tests are worth it. Being spread open at the doctor’s office with her feet on stirrups and her gown hiked up to her waist while he sticks a finger inside of her to check that her hymen is still intact is worth it.

Celia sends Sami a very formal “miss you” letter for her trouble. This couldn’t have worked out better if she’d planned it.

GM: Sami sends back another letter saying how pleased she is and mentioning how great her life is going at Loyola University. It’s right next door to Tulane. They really should make plans to hang out again. There are some superficially polite but actually catty remarks about showing beauty and fashion tips to the formerly makeup-less and modestly-dressed girl.

Celia’s new roommate, a premed major with aspirations of becoming a doctor named Emily Rosure, is amused when she sees Celia reading the letter. “Oh, wow. I didn’t think anyone under 40 still sent those.” She’s a woman of unclear race (maybe Latina) with long black hair who looks maybe a few years older than Celia.

When she hears the letter is from Sami Watts, she remarks that she’s “heard some really sketchy stuff about her.”

“I think she’s an escort. She was always getting really dressed up for lots of dates and coming back with money.”

Celia: “An escort?”

Sami’s visit to McGregor makes more sense now. She wonders whose idea it was for the girl to see him.

“Do they just order online for something like that?”

GM: “Good question. I hear there’s a lot of girls who do it to pay tuition, but I’d rather keep my dignity.”

Celia: “Huh.”

Celia has never considered what that must be like, being unable to afford tuition. Her daddy takes care of it, like he’ll do for her siblings.

“If it’s not too personal, do you mind if I ask… have you done things like that? Sex, I mean.”

GM: Emily nods. “Yeah. I’ve had boyfriends.”

She asks with an understanding look, “Conservative parents?”

Celia: “Like you wouldn’t believe,” Celia sighs. “All-girls school. No boyfriends. No dances. No makeup. I’m finally allowed to go on dates and it all feels so awkward. How do you know if they like you? What are you supposed to talk about? What are you supposed to do?”

GM: “Welll, guys are usually obvious about it,” Emily answers with some amusement. “You can talk about a lot of the same stuff you would with girls, really.”

“And there’s lots to do, colleges have parties all the time. There’s actually gonna be one here at Josephine Louise this Saturday.”

“I guess it’s redundant to invite you when it’s right here, but you wanna go with me?”

Celia: “I’d love to go with you.” Celia beams at her. “Should we go shopping for something like this? New dresses?”

GM: Emily looks a little embarrassed. “Oh, well, money’s a little tight for me.”

Celia: “It’s on me. And you can introduce me to someone cute and nice, and we’ll call it even.”

“Because listen, Emily. I went to school with girls who smiled at your face and stabbed you in the back. And you don’t seem like that girl. And I’m excited to be here and to be your roommate. And you didn’t laugh at me for my parents being super conservative. I like you. So let’s make a day of it, and you can tell me all about boys and answer my silly questions. And I’ll let you know if your foundation doesn’t match your neck something.”

GM: Emily smiles. “Okay, it’s a deal. Dress and makeup advice for a boy and boy advice.”

“Though… it might have to be for just an afternoon.” She looks briefly regretful. “I work a lot of hours. The alternative to being an escort.”

Celia: “Then we should get going so we’ve got plenty of time. And I want to hear more about what you do.” Celia links her arm through Emily’s. This is going to be fun.

GM: Emily’s two jobs are less than glamorous. She’s a waitress at several restaurants. It can be really demanding to balance on top of schoolwork. She says restaurants are a fast-paced, high-stress environment with really heavy partying late at night. Lots of smoking (it’s insane how much cooks smoke), drug use, and cheap booze with cheap sex. Emily doesn’t like smokers and stays off the drugs: her family had drug problems and she doesn’t want to turn out the same way, but it makes her coworkers think she’s a prude. The Tulane party is a relief. It’s a “normal party.”

She’ll be glad when she can quit the service industry. She’s not getting any help from family members with tuition, but she qualified for a good scholarship. The two jobs cover the rest of her expenses.

She wants to be a doctor and is majoring in premed, with a focus in kinesiology. She’d like to “help people while making good money.”

Celia: “If you want to be a doctor and your focus is kinesiology, what about doing something like massage therapy? It’s additional school but then you can do that while you finish medical school or something. Maybe.” Celia doesn’t know how intense medical school and residency is. “Gets you out of the restaurant industry and the party lifestyle. Then you’ve got a medical background too. So it’s like practice kind of.” Celia beams at her. She had just learned a little bit about massage at esthetician school.

GM: “Med school and residency is really intense,” Emily explains for her. “But that might be a thought while I’m still an undergrad. Everything about the whole service industry culture is just… really distracting.”

Celia’s roommate brightens, though, when topics move to clothes and boys. She finds a purple knee-length strapless dress with rufffles at Yvonne LaFleur’s she just loves.

She answers what questions she can about the male sex. She went to a coed school and also adds that, “The restaurant industry is super macho. All of the cooks are guys. All of them. Except for the pastry chefs. They’re all girls.”

Celia: Celia peppers her with questions about boys. It’s as if she has been living under a rock and now the entire world is hers for the taking, but first she has to know about it. Not living under her father’s roof anymore is phenomenal. Shopping with her roommate is phenomenal. She is free.

“Maybe I should get a job at a restaurant for a while,” Celia muses as she adjusts the dress on Emily in front of the fitting room mirror. “Dad wanted me to focus on school. Is that the kind of thing I can do once or twice a week?”

The dress that she’s found is a classic black number with a square neckline and mesh sleeves. The focus is less on cleavage and more on the way it hugs her body, far more snugly than anything she’s ever worn before. It ends a few inches above her knee.

GM: “It is, yeah, restaurant schedules are pretty flexible. You have moms, students, full-timers, and people working 9 to 5s. You put down when you’re available and they schedule you around that. Though…” she adds with a note of caution, “it can be pretty intense. You might ask if your parents have any jobs they could get you, if you want the extra spending money.”

She smiles at their reflections in the mirror. “I feel like a princess getting dressed up like this.” It’s a nice dress, though not that nice. “And that looks really cute on you. I bet it feels good to dress how you want.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t say what she’s thinking, that the job wouldn’t be for cash. It would be too experience a different sort of lifestyle, something that would get her out from under the sheltered life her father created for her. An excuse to be out at night, a way to meet people. She smiles, though, and makes a note to look into it. She could be a server. Or a hostess.

“It’s nice to wear what I want finally. I’ve seen girls in things like this in magazines and have always been jealous. You don’t think it’s too much for a college party?”

Hair_Clips.jpg She finds a pair of sparkling silver hair clips and pulls Emily’s hair up.

“There. It’s no tiara, but now you are a princess. My mom always said to pick one feature to highlight with jewelry. So if you go sparkly hair you leave your neck bare.”

GM: Emily considers the question. “Hmm, I’d say it’s maybe a little dressy. You could dumb it down with a jacket, tights, or some more casual shoes.”

She smiles widely at her reflection in the mirror. “Oh wow, that looks great! I guess conservative parents give good fashion advice, at least.”

Celia: “Like a… cropped leather jacket?” Celia has worn a uniform for years. Even though she pours over fashion magazines she isn’t sure how to make this dress more casual. A jacket sounds hot. Tights sound girlish.

“Maybe I’ll find something more casual.”

And keep this one for later, since she loves it. A different party. Or a date.

GM: Emily remarks as much on Celia keeping it, since she likes it, but agrees it would be good to wear out on a date. Maybe she’ll meet someone at the party.

Celia: She finds a simple A-line that ends above the knee with wide straps to keep it up, in a dusty mauve color. She doesn’t love it on the hanger, but once she has it on she changes her mind.

GM: “Oh, that’s also cute,” Emily says on the next dress. “It’d look good with some ankle boots. Knee dresses with open toes or ballet flats always give me a little girl vibe.”

Celia: “How come they’re called skater dresses? Do you skate in them?”

GM: She thinks. “I think it’s because they’re modeled after the costumes skaters wear.”

Emily demurs that she’s happy with just the purple strapless when the subject of other clothes comes up, and says she’ll pay for the hair clips. She seems embarrassed for money to be an issue.

Celia: Celia seems happy with the two dresses. She doesn’t want to make a big deal out of looking for shoes since Emily is already balking at the price, so she mentions she has something at home she’ll pick up before the party. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer about the clips, pointing out that the price is marked up because of the store and that Emily is doing her a huge favor.

“Besides,” she adds, “if there’s no cute boys at the party I’m going to ask you for help with my Bio homework. My dad said if I don’t keep my grades up I’m in big trouble, missy.” Celia makes a face. She doesn’t mention that big trouble for her is probably an extra doctor visit and drug test, as well as an over-the-knee pantsless spanking. She isn’t quite that comfortable with Emily yet.

GM: Emily relents at Celia’s insistence over the clips and laughs at her impression of her dad. “He sounds so, well, Southern. No offense.”

Celia: None at all taken.

Saturday evening, 8 November 2008

GM: Josephine Louise House, better known as JLH, is a three-story red-bricked building that serves as one of the girls’ dorms. Built in 1887, the 121-year-old building is one of the four structures still remaining from Tulane’s original campus. The dorm party is a buzz of music, alcohol, high-caloric snacks, and above all, boys. Celia doesn’t think she’s ever seen so many guys her age in the same space without adults (well, “real” adults) present.

Emily introduces her to a cute brown-haired and slim-figured one named Stephen. He’s majoring in philosophy and plans to go into law school, then work for as a lawyer for either the DA’s office or the FBI. He’s passionate about wanting to prosecute organized crime, which he says is “huge in the city” and has "made a real comeback since 9/11 when so many cops and lawyers got reassigned to counter-terrorism and political corruption.”

Celia: Celia has often been warned about the dangers of alcohol by her overbearing father. She doesn’t plan on drinking this evening, though she does allow herself the fatty snacks that she normally shies away from, the chips and soft drinks and pizza. She wants to try the booze, she really does, but she’s seen a few girls puke already and she has no interest in spending the rest of the night with her head over the toilet bowl.

Stephen is cute, even if he talks about crime for the most of the night and doesn’t ask her a single question about herself. But his views on the organized crime families are interesting, and she wants to know what he knows: what is a mob family actually like? How does he know so much about it? Is it mostly drugs, or do they deal in other things? She asks if he’s looking into Tulane for law, and if he’s going to practice in Louisiana.

GM: Stephen asks whether she means a mob family “as a criminal organization or as an actual family.” Though there is a lot of overlap. “It’s way less glamorous than in the movies. Most of them past age 50 are obese and have all sorts of health problems. Most of them are dumb, uneducated, could never hold a real job, and use dog pack intimidation to get what they want. They’re also incredibly sexist. Pretty much all of them cheat on their wives, expect the women to just take it, then beat them if they complain.”

His dad and grandpa were also federal prosecutors who clashed with the Mob, so “I guess it’s in my blood.” It’s been a long and grueling struggle to break their power, and it’s not even succeeded. They had their best chance after the Cold War ended and now it’s backsliding. RICO wasn’t as effective as people think. It’s mainly competition from other criminal groups that have been weakening the Mob as a result of demographic shifts and fewer Italian-Americans needing to turn to crime to make a living.

“They deal in everything,” he answers. Drugs. Prostitutes. Construction. Porn. Online gambling. Protection rackets. Contract killings. Bribery and graft. Bookies and numbers. Money laundering and loan sharking. Theft. Unions. “The Mob has their fingers in everything, like I said. Whatever it is, they can find a way to turn it to crap.”

Tulane is one of the law schools he’s applying to. “If I could go to Yale Law, awesome,” but wherever he goes, he wants to come back to the city to practice.

He also remarks a little embarrassedly between a sip of booze, “Oh. Sorry. I’ve been talking about myself all this time. What are you majoring in?”

Celia: “Nothing as exciting as all of that,” she tells him. She wants to know more. About his father and grandfather, what they did. About RICO, since she’s never heard the word before, and what other criminal groups he means. “Like gangs?” She hadn’t had to deal with any of that nonsense in Audubon Place. The walls, uniformed guards, and dogs kept them out.

“If your father and grandfather haven’t been able to succeed, what makes you think you will?” The question isn’t a challenge, just curiosity. She wants to know what makes him different. What makes him special.

GM: Stephen’s grandfather was a federal prosecutor back in the ‘60s. He investigated the Mafia for its involvement in JFK’s assassination (Lee Harvey Oswald was from New Orleans), which he believed they were behind. Stephen also believes the Mafia was behind it. His dad also works as a federal prosecutor for the Eastern District of Louisiana and is thinking of running for office as a judge.

RICO, or the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, is a complicated piece of legislation. But the short version, and the context behind it, is that mob bosses have historically avoided prosecution by passing orders to carry out criminal acts through intermediaries. For example, a mob boss who wants someone dead might give the order to a capo (a mid-level leader of a criminal crew), who passes it on to the soldato (made man within his crew) who actually carries out the killing. There can be even more intermediaries than this. The more intermediaries there are, the harder a case is to prosecute. RICO, which was passed in the ‘70s, was intended to let mob bosses be charged directly no matter how many subordinates they hid their orders behind. It also has a bunch of other statutes specifically targeting the Mafia to make prosecution easier—and, just as importantly, to make it more tempting for wiseguys to “flip” on their fellows and cooperate with prosecutors. RICO specifically targets patterns of criminal behavior and was meant to make anyone who got charged with it go, "Oh fuck I’m doomed."

In practice, RICO has helped, but not as much as it could have. The Mafia and connected special interests found various ways to water it down: it’s quite rare for mob bosses to actually get charged with RICO violations, while the government has expanded its applications to target people who have little to nothing to do with organized crime. “But that’d also take a while to explain. It’s just… promised a lot more than it delivered.”

“I don’t know that I will succeed,” he answers to Celia’s last question. “But I think the problem would be worse if my dad and grandpa hadn’t tried.”

“They didn’t win, but that doesn’t mean they lost. The Mob is still weaker today than it was in the ’30s. Maybe my kids or grandkids will get to see it finally bite the dust.”

“And I’ll have helped it get there.”

Celia: “You’re carrying on the family tradition,” Celia says, nodding. “That’s noble. Admirable. To preserve your family’s legacy because it’s expected, or because it’s what you actually want to do?” She eyes him over the rim of the plastic cup she’s drinking from, the hint of a smile curling the corners of her mouth upward. She’d let someone talk her into a splash of rum in the coke. It is… sweeter than she expected. Cloying, almost. She isn’t sure how she feels about it. Warm, maybe.

GM: “Oh, it’s what I want to do,” Stephen answers between another sip from his own plastic cup, seemingly barely pausing to consider the question. “It’s making the world a better place, lawyers make good money, and I already know a ton about the job. It’d feel almost dumb not to.”

He smiles back at Celia. “But I’ve talked a ton about myself. Can I at least hear what you’re majoring in?”

Celia: “Dance.”

GM: “I’m gonna guess… you want to be a dancer? Like, ballet?”

Celia knows from her mom well you don’t go to college for ballet. It’s something to round out credentials over actually teaching dance fundamentals. Training starts with kids. The younger, the better.

Celia: “I just wanted to learn to do the splits.”

“Kidding. But no, you don’t need college to dance.”

GM: “Splits seems useful. Insert joke about liberal arts degrees worth more as placemats.”

Celia: “Clever. I suppose philosophy would be more beneficial.”

GM: “My dad told me to just major in whatever seemed fun. It doesn’t really matter next to law school.”

He sips some more from his cup.

“Is that what you want to do, though, dance professionally?”

Celia: “Law school,” Celia says, winking. “It doesn’t matter what undergrad is, and it seemed fun.” She finishes her drink. “In all seriousness, no. I don’t want to dance professionally. I suppose I wouldn’t mind it, but… that’s generally something you go to a specific institution for, some in high school, others earlier. I’d have gone to a performing arts college or joined a company.”

There’s a pause as she looks down at her empty cup, swirling the ice around in the tiny bit of liquid that has melted at the bottom.

“Everyone wants to dance. Could I audition? Certainly. Do I have other aspirations? Of course.”

GM: “Well, it sounds like a fun major. What do you want to do, if you don’t plan on auditions?”

Celia: “Right now? Enjoy college. Want another?” She nods toward the plastic cup, but doesn’t wait for an answer. A minute later she’s back, two drinks in hand. She offers him one.

“I have some ideas. A dance degree translates into various areas, so it’s not as if I’m limited to only professional dancing. I think it kind of depends on where things go for me.”

“But you were wrong earlier. It’s much more interesting to hear about underground mobsters than Swan Lake. So, federal lawyer? That sounds… intense.”

GM: “It pays less than private practice, but it’s most prestigious than being an ADA. I’m thinking about whether I want to do that after I finish law school, or if I just…”

Stephen seems to take the hint that that Celia doesn’t want to talk about herself, so he talks about himself. He can do that for a while. It’s when his second cup is nearly drained that he mentions in a tipsier voice,

“I have a stalker. She changes her hair but she’s always in a black turtleneck. I’ve tried to talk to her, but she always disappears. Dunno who she is. It’s freaky.”

Celia: “A stalker?” Celia scans the crowd, as if looking for the girl in question. “She here? How long has she been stalking you? Wait, I have so many questions. Should we go upstairs to keep you safe?”

Upstairs is where her room is at.

GM: It’s a thick and increasingly sloshed-looking crowd as the evening wears on. Emily’s off with another guy, but Celia doesn’t see a girl who fits the description.

Stephen makes a “psshh” sound and waves his hand.

“My dad and grandpa went after the Mafia. So will I. She’s nothing next to what they’ve done to try and intimidate my family. Just really weird. Dunno what she wants.”

He grins at her. “But upstairs still sounds like a good idea. It’s getting pretty noisy.”

Celia: Celia cuts through the crowd easily, leading Stephen toward the stairs. She has more questions for him—she wants to know how, exactly, the Mafia went after his family—and she finds the whole thing quite thrilling. She has him by the hand by the time they get to her dorm room, all the better to keep track of him in the party that has quickly gotten wilder than anticipated.

Emily had told her prior to the party about the dorm room trick with the rubber band or hair tie around the knob to request privacy, and there is neither waiting for the two of them. She opens the door to allow them inside.

There is a clear divide in the room, and Celia’s side is evident even before the would-be dancer leads her new friend toward that side. It is simply more feminine than the other, with an easy elegance that comes naturally to the Flores child. Her bed is lifted off the ground to allow space for storage. Art decorates her wall, a simple print of flowers, a quote, and a metal hanging with her initials over the bed: CAF. A mound of pillows is perched precariously on top of her bed, along with both a velveteen comforter and a fur throw. A sturdy-looking ottoman provides a step up, if needed. All of it is done up in hues of gray and pink and cream.

GM: Emily’s side is a lot more bare next to Celia’s. It’s just a plain bed with two blankets and one pillow. The main ‘decor’ seems to be her textbooks, binders, and notebooks.

Stephen plops down with Celia on her bed.

“That’s a cute setup,” he says, looking the decor over. “Though not as cute as you.”

He leans in to kiss her.

Celia: Celia’s nerves are dulled by the drink. Stephen looms closer, and though her mind races—what am I doing? What should I do with my hands? Is my breath okay? What if he tries to put his tongue in my mouth?—her body reacts accordingly. She lets him come to her. 90/10, like Hitch said, and it’s up to her to close the gap.

She does so. It’s… warm. And wet. And her first kiss, so her eyes close like they’re supposed to, and her leg shifts on the bed to face him fully, and her hands… well, she’s still not sure what to do with her hands.

GM: Stephen puts his hands around Celia’s waist at first, but brings them up higher as he goes in for a second kiss. Her dad technically didn’t say she couldn’t do this, but it somehow feels transgressive, and perhaps satisfyingly so. If she seems receptive, Stephen’s tongue starts to explore hers.

If she still does, his hands start to fondle her breasts.

Celia: There’s something thrilling about flaunting the rules so thoroughly. Alcohol. A boy in her room. His hands moving up her body. Heat colors her cheeks when he touches her. Her hands finally move, spurred into action by his boldness. They start at his shoulders, then sweep down across his chest, around his back. She shifts, moving forward until she is on his lap.

GM: Stephen hungrily reciprocates Celia’s growing confidence and starts peeling off her clothes.

Daddy would never approve of that.

Celia: Too much. Too soon.

That threat had lingered in the back of her mind. The doctor. Her dad. How far is she supposed to let him go, this boy she doesn’t know that she met at a party? Isn’t everything supposed to be more magical than this? Dinner or a movie or dancing or… or something. Candles and roses, not cheap beer and cheaper rum. She didn’t even put a thing on the door; what if Emily walks in?

She seizes the excuse. Her hands fly to cover herself.


GM: “What is it?” Stephen asks, a little surprised.

“I have a condom, don’t worry.”

Celia: “I—uh, my roommate is, uh, due back soon.”

The lie is clumsy. She doesn’t meet his eye. She’s already reaching for her dress, or the throw, or whatever is close by that she can use to hide her body away again. Her shoulders are hunched.

GM: “Oh.”

That seems to kill the mood a little.

More than a little.

“We could… go back to my place, if you want. I live off-campus.”

Celia: “I…” She can’t even look at him. She is sure her cheeks are burning. “I’ve never… I mean…”

She covers her face with her hands. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

GM: Stephen seems to hesitate a moment, then puts an arm around her shoulder.

“Hey. It’s okay. There’s, there’s lots of girls who haven’t.”

Celia: “I know. I just… I didn’t mean to, um, to like… lead you on.”

GM: “No, no. I’ve had fun. This has been nice. And you’re really pretty.”

He adds after a moment, “Do you want to, though? I don’t mind it’s your first.”

“I could also… take you out, if you want it to be more special. You know, dinner and a movie.”

Celia: Special. There’s that word. And exactly what she wants. For it to be special. Like the movies, and books, and everything she’s ever thought it should be. Does that mean Stephen is a nice guy? Like an actual nice guy, or a ‘nice guy’ nice guy, like Emily explained, who just puts in friendship tokens and expects sex? No, they’re not friends. What would they be if she lets him take her out, though? Dating? Like a boyfriend? She wants to ask, but the question sticks in her throat. What if he thinks she’s stupid?

“Like, um… dating?”

GM: If Stephen finds the question unintelligent, he just answers, “Yeah, it’d be a date.”

Celia: Date. Singular. One time thing.


GM: As if realizing his poor word choice, Stephen adds, “We could go on more, if we have a good time.”

“How’s Sunday tomorrow? Or Friday, if that doesn’t work for you.”

Celia: Sunday is God’s day. Doesn’t that makes this somehow more blasphemous? No, she can’t think like that. Maybe it’s a… blessing.

“Sunday is good.”

It gives her less time to get worked up over it.

GM: Sunday is church with her family. But that doesn’t last all day.

“Great,” Stephen smiles. He trades phone numbers, hashes out a time to pick her up, and gives her a parting kiss goodbye.

She could call her mom. Ask her roommate.

Or just freak out about the hymen inspections every semester.

Celia: She makes sure to get his last name to save in her phone, so it’s not just ‘Stephen Party.’ Since that would be awkward.

GM: His last name is Garrison.

Celia: Once he’s gone she finds a bottle of water and sits down with her thoughts and a clean sheet of notebook paper. She starts a list of things to do tomorrow.

1. Brazilian

2. Mani/pedi

3. New bra & panties

Someone has some shopping to do.

How to fake a hymen, she types into Qeeqle. Celia has some serious research to do if she wants to fool the doctor.

GM: She finds results for ‘artificial hymen kits’ that one can order online from

Celia: She purchases two.

GM: The website says they’ll arrive soon.

Celia: Not soon enough.

Sunday morning, 9 November 2008

GM: Emily doesn’t come home Friday night, or the next morning by the time Celia is expected back home. Church services feel very different from the dorm party in her high-necklined dress, makeup-less face, and flat shoes. The sermon is about filial duty and honoring one’s parents. Isabel drinks it up. Their father looks pleased and even tells Celia how nice she looks today.

Celia: Celia smiles for her daddy, and doesn’t say anything snide to Isabel, and is the one to lean down to gently shush Logan when he starts getting antsy. There’s something wrong about being in church with her family and knowing what she is going to get up to later that feels… wicked.

After the service she checks her phone to see if Emily called or texted, and if the girl hasn’t reached out then Celia sends her a message.

GM: Emily’s Sundays seem largely spoken for, and she isn’t home by the time Stephen swings by to pick her up. He takes her out to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is actually set in New Orleans and about a man who ages in reverse, being born a frail old man and dying as a young infant.

It’s an interesting gimmick. His love interest Daisy is a ballerina who gets her leg crushed in a car accident and is forced to give up her career, which is implied to lead to her romance with Benjamin. The film has a somewhat nonchalant air about it. She supposes it has a somewhat nonchalant air towards everything, as the World War II scenes also don’t depict any suffering or death, but the topic might hit close to home.

GM: “And if only one thing had happened differently…” goes the narrator.

Celia: Celia’s mood plummets as soon as Daisy ends up in the hospital. The entire scene leading up to it is filled with anxiety. Each close call, each near miss. She knows what is coming. She has seen this situation before. Her stomach twists itself into knots and her mouth goes dry. Stephen’s hand is on the armrest next to her and she squeezes his fingers, her other hand curled into a fist. Her nails dig into her palm.

If one thing had happened differently. If she had gotten the gun sooner. If she had run and called from her neighbor’s house. If she had given a different name, because as often as she thought back to that night she kept coming back to the fact that as soon as she gave her name—her sister’s name—the dispatcher said the officers weren’t coming.

She doesn’t want to watch the rest of the movie. She wants to find the nearest bathroom and vomit her guts up. She can’t help the tears. And the blasé way the movie handles it, as if this is just a thing that happened… it’s not Daisy lying in that bed, it’s Diana.

GM: They even have similar names. That’s a funny coincidence.

“…hey, you all right?” Stephen asks with a concerned frown. He looks totally blasé about the accident until Celia starts squeezing his hand with an upset look.

Celia: Celia hadn’t realized how tightly she was squeezing. She loosens her grip, then leans in so she can keep her voice low in the theater.

“My… mom was injured like that, ended her career. Traumatic.” She shakes her head. “Tell you later.”

GM: “Oh. I’m so sorry,” Stephen whispers back. “Do you want to leave? It’s not even that good a movie.”

Someone throws popcorn at Celia’s back.


Celia: Celia sinks lower into her seat. She shouldn’t be making a big deal out of this. But he said the movie was bad, so that means he doesn’t care, right? But… it’s a movie. What if he thinks she’s a terrible person for leaving a movie? And everyone will watch them get up. And what if he only wants to leave to have sex?

Why aren’t there guidelines for things like this?

“If you don’t mind,” she finally whispers.

GM: Stephen takes her hand and leads her out of the theater. More people seem to be watching the screen than the departing couple, though Celia hears one guy in the back whisper to his presumed girlfriend, “She’s such a bitch, I’m glad her leg got ruined.”

“Sorry,” Stephen says again once they’re out. “I didn’t know.”

“I guess The Dark Knight would’ve been a better choice after all.”

“First movie I’ve ever walked out on, actually.”

Celia: Celia takes a few moments to simply breathe once she gets outside the theater. She waves off Stephen’s apology.

“It’s okay. You couldn’t have known. I didn’t think seeing that would hit me so hard, honestly.”

She rubs a hand over her face. She feels ridiculous now.

“Is The Dark Knight the new Batman one?”

GM: “Yeah. I thought everyone’s seen it, so figured this would be something original. Plus it’s set in the city.”

Her dad didn’t let the family see it.

Celia: “I’ve… never seen any of the Batman movies. I just heard about it. Have you seen it? Is it good? Any mutilated ballerinas?” She tries to laugh it off.

GM: Stephen looks a little surprised, but answers, “Yeah, I have. It’s amazing.”

“Hey, why don’t we get tickets for it? I totally don’t mind seeing it again.”

Celia: “I’d like that.”

GM: “Great! And there’s no mutilated ballerinas.”

“There actually are some ballerinas, but nothing bad happens to them.”

Celia: “Oh good. Apparently that’s my trigger.”

GM: “Well, I don’t blame you. That had to be really upsetting for you and your mom.”

Celia: “I went to visit her the day after,” Celia says quietly. “It was… it was bad. Seeing Daisy in the bed like that just brought up all those memories. Sorry, I’m not usually squeamish or anything, it just took me right back to being in that moment.”

GM: “Oh, I totally get it. That must’ve hit way too close to home.”

“Movies about the Mafia really get to me too. I hate The Godfather and I haven’t had anything personally happen to my family.”

Celia: “You said that…” Celia lowers her voice, just in case, “you said that they tried to do things to your family?”

GM: Stephen shakes his head. “We were too public. They actually couldn’t do anything serious to us. But they’d still try to scare my parents and grandparents, like following them when they were out driving, or pulling cars up around their kids’ schools.”

“Some mafiosos actually pick up peoples’ kids and drop them off at their houses, just to show how easily they could take them away forever.”

“But the Mafia didn’t do that to us. They’re cowards. They never want real fights.”

Celia: “That honestly sounds terrifying.” Celia can’t even imagine what it would be like to be picked up by a mobster and dropped off at her father’s house. Or one of her siblings… Her face pales. She takes Stephen’s hand in hers and squeezes, more gently this time than the crushing grip she’d had on him in the theater.

“Do you think the girl following you is one of them?”

GM: Stephen thinks.

“The Mafia is really sexist. Women can’t be official members. They’re supposed to be wives and mothers.”

“But there are ones who still get pretty involved with mob life. Molls and girlfriends, or older wives and moms giving advice from behind the scenes.”

Celia: “Oh.” Celia hadn’t realized that, even in 2008, the Mafia would be sexist. That seems so… old-timey. Like they should have evolved beyond that.

GM: “I guess it’s possible, but I don’t know why they’d be interested now. My family hasn’t gone after them in any real cases lately.”

“I’m not scaring you with this, am I?” he asks, looking at her pale face as he squeezes back.

Celia: “No, no,” she assures him, “you’re not scaring me. I guess I’m just curious. It’s… okay, so don’t get mad, right? I know you said you hate movies like The Godfather, but that’s kind of the only thing I know to base what I know of the Mafia off of, and I’ve never seen that either, so it’s like I just have this… kind of vague idea of it all, I guess, and it’s… is it wrong to say fascinating? Should I stick to interesting? Is that morbid?” She flushes. “I know they’re bad guys and everything, I’m not idolizing them. Sorry, I don’t mean to sound silly. I mean, I guess I’m worried for you that you have a stalker, but no you’re not scaring me, to get back to your question.”

GM: “Well, that’s good. And I think we’re all interested in morbid stuff, on some level. That’s what The Godfather appeals to. I mean, even The Dark Knight. I can also admit that The Godfather has cinematic merit—there’s a reason it’s so acclaimed.”

“The problem is that it romanticizes the Mafia and makes them sympathetic figures. It’s not really possible to to see what they’re actually like outside of, well, real life. Or I guess growing up around people who’ve seen them up close, like me.”

“But there’s nothing romantic about what they are. They’re just thugs, parasites, that exploit people and destroy their lives.”

Celia: “Like how people romanticize anything negative. Pirates. Monsters. Domestic abuse. I can change him, he’ll love me, but really he’s a giant piece of garbage and you’re better off without him. And pirates are dirty. And the mob is sexist and… and parasites, like you said.”

GM: “Yeah. What you said about your mom… that’s the sort of thing they’d do. Break a ballerina’s legs if she couldn’t pay protection money, or pay back a debt.”

Celia: She looks horrified at the thought of a mobster breaking her mother’s legs, though the truth is even worse.

“That’s awful.”

GM: “Well, that’s the Mafia. But I guess you’re right, we always want to romanticize ugly things.”

Celia: “What do you think that says about us as people, Mr. Philosophy Major?”

GM: “Hey, that’s more like psychology. But Aristotle actually has some interesting stuff to say about it.”

“Because the ancient Greeks were all about awful tragedies. Oedipus killing his dad and marrying his mom and all that. It’s the whole concept of catharsis, which means purging emotions through art. We get to feel fear, grief, anger, disgust, and other negative emotions in a controlled setting where no one’s getting hurt. Since we sympathize with the protagonist, it broadens our perspectives, helps us develop empathy, and teaches us about ourselves and how we deal with negative emotions. It makes us better people.”

Celia: “So in Artistotle’s mind, I should have stayed in the theater to watch Diana’s leg get shattered? Or I create my own art around the, um, the trauma?”

GM: “You mean Daisy’s?” Stephen corrects.

“But I actually don’t think he’d say that. You’ve already seen it in real life. You don’t need to develop empathy through a movie. Just like I don’t need to see any Mafia movies when I’ve already grown up on my family’s stories.”

“Though if you wanted to create art, well, they all say write what you know.”

Celia: “Yeah. Daisy.” Shit. What had she said? “I think… maybe I meant more like processing trauma. I was on a different subject altogether.”

It’s given her an idea, anyway, and she’s eager to get back to the studio to find an appropriate piece of music.

“I hope my questions don’t make you uncomfortable, I guess is what I’m getting at. And… also if you see your friend, let me know. Maybe she’s just a fervid admirer.” Celia winks at him.

GM: “Ha ha. Sucks for her I’m taken tonight,” Stephen smiles back.

There’s some time until the next showing starts. Stephen suggests they should get food now instead of later. They grab tickets while there’s no one else in line, then grab pizza at a nearby joint. The Dark Knight is completely unlike any movie Celia has been allowed watch at home. Those either have to be made during the Hollywood Production Code era or get pre-viewed and approved by her father. The Batman movie is full of blockbuster special effects and an ending that’s far from the good guys winning and the bad guys getting their just desserts like the old Hollywood Code mandated. Stephen is enraptured by the movie and clearly doesn’t mind seeing it again.

There is some catharsis there, she supposes, in getting to experience something she normally wouldn’t.

Celia: Celia is hooked from the get-go. She cannot believe the opening scene, the betrayal after betrayal after betrayal into a villain that is, for all intents and purposes, insane. Despite not knowing the history of Batman, despite not quite understanding the play between the characters, it captures the entirety of her attention. And then the party scene… there’s something there that draws her in. The girl, Rachel, picked out of the crowd and manhandled by the villain, caught from behind by the monster.

It takes her back to the hallway.

She shivers, moving Stephen’s arms around her shoulders.

Later, once it’s over, she tells him that it was amazing. That she’s so happy she got to experience it with him. All the way back to to his place she asks him questions, wants to know more about movies that she has missed out on, though she is careful to never quite phrase it like that, and if he asks she cites her dance practice as the reason she missed out.

GM: She’s also able to talk about some famous movies she has seen, like Gone with the Wind. Her dad loved that.

Stephen’s happy to answer questions about other movies. He tells her there’s a prequel to The Dark Knight, actually, which is the second movie in a planned trilogy. Batman Begins isn’t quite as good, in his opinion, but it’s still really good. “It’s an A next to an A+, and there are some things I’ll admit it does better than The Dark Knight. Batman does more actual detective work and the city’s ambiance feels more like Gotham than Chicago.”

He strongly believes it’s a better movie than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

“That movie sort of felt derivative of Forrest Gump. It wants to give this sort of laid-back ‘life goes on’ feel, but it doesn’t explore subject matter as serious as Forrest Gump does. It’s more sanitized and I don’t think really ultimately does anything with the whole ‘ages in reverse’ gimmick.”

“But there’s lots of good movies out there. I can show you Batman Begins another night.”

That sounds like another date after all.

Stephen drives Celia back to his place in Riverbend as they talk. It’s a college student’s starter apartment, not that big and messier than Celia’s dorm room, but there’s no roommate and she supposes it’s neat enough for a guy’s place. They’re soon back where they were yesterday night, except it’s on his bed this time.

Celia: This time, when Stephen takes her dress off, she doesn’t pull away or tell him to wait. She doesn’t worry about her roommate interrupting them. Or her upcoming doctor visit. Or her dad’s disapproving stare. Or the fact that she was supposed to bring Stephen by the house for his approval to even kiss the boy, let alone what they’re doing now, which is…

Well. Magical, really. It’s all she’s ever wanted.

Celia I, Prologue II
Blueberry Pancakes

Sunday morning, 16 November 2003

GM: Celia’s dad wakes her up the next morning. He’s thrilled to have won the Senate election; did she hear the results? He laughingly calls her “sleepyhead,” but treats her to breakfast in bed. Anything for his little princess.

It’s buttermilk blueberry pancakes. They’re fat, fluffy, hot off the griddle and singed a light golden brown. Half-melted butter and drizzled maple syrup complete the essentials to any pancake breakfast.

They still have church later, but he’s woken her up early so she’ll have plenty of time to lounge in bed and enjoy breakfast.

Celia: Pancakes. Like last time. She remembers.

“Thanks, Daddy.” She searches his face as he sets it before her, looking for signs of… something. “Congratulations on the win,” she says, “I’m so proud of you.”

And she is, isn’t she? This is what their family went through the ringer for. This is why he took everything from her, the pressure that Mom said he was under…

“Is Mom up?”

GM: Celia’s dad smiles at her initial words, but then frowns. It’s not an angry frown. It’s a very sad one.

“Sweetie, I have some bad news.”

“Mom isn’t going to be part of our family anymore.”

Celia: The fork pauses halfway to her mouth.


GM: “There’s no easy way to put this,” her dad sighs. “But you’re old enough to know the truth.”

“Your mom has… been having an affair, with Bill Roberts.”

He was the rival Democratic candidate.

“And has been passing his campaign information from ours. I’m frankly surprised we were even able to still win.”

Celia: “Oh.” Celia sets the fork down on the plate, blueberry pancake with it. “She was… spying on us? On everyone?”

The betrayal is sharp. She remembers the time her mother held her down while her father spanked her, then blamed the election. Had she been the cause of that? Had he known, even then? Suspected? Was that why he had been so angry? And her mother had known and… and let him do that to her? Helped, even, then bought her off with concealer and a sparkly shirt.

“What about us? Isabel and David and Sophia and Logan and I? What happens to us?”

GM: “You’re all going to stay with me,” her dad answers. “I could file charges for what she did. But I’m not going to do that, in return for her not contesting the divorce or trying to get custody of you.”

“It’s better for everyone if this stays out of the papers. You and your siblings don’t need to be harassed by the media.”

Celia: “Are you going to tell them?” she asks him. The implication is clear: is this our little secret?

GM: Her dad shakes his head.

“Eventually. Maybe. But they aren’t old enough to know yet.”

Yes. It is.

Celia: “Oh. Right.” That makes sense. “What about school? And the house? Are we staying here?”

Here, where monsters tuck her in at night. Her hands shake; she curls her fingers in the blankets on her bed.

“Where is she going? Is she here?”

GM: Her dad smiles and takes her hand. “Of course we’re staying here, sweetie. This is home. You’ll still go to McGehee.”

“The only thing that’s going to be different is not seeing your mom’s ballet shows. She isn’t here. She’s not coming back. She’s going to find somewhere else to live.”

He squeezes her hand reassuringly.

“I’m not going to let this break up our family.”

Celia: “And… and nothing bad will happen to us, right?”

GM: “Never, sweetie,” her dad answers adamantly.

“I won’t let it.”

Celia: “Do you promise?”

GM: Celia’s dad lifts up her purity ring from the bedside table, slips it onto her fingers, then kisses those same fingers.

“I promise, Celia. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Ever. Anything bad coming our family’s way will have to go through me first.”

Celia: Celia nods. She wants to believe him.

“I love you, Daddy.”

GM: Her dad hugs her close.

“I love you too, Celia.”

“More than anything.

Sunday afternoon, 16 November 2003

GM: Church services with her siblings go well. They have a ‘family meeting’ afterwards. Dad tells them a sanitized version: Mom doesn’t want to be part of the family anymore. She no longer loves him, or them. She’s leaving. They’ll stay in the house. They’ll stay in the same schools. It’ll all stay the same.

Just without her.

They don’t take it well. Celia’s youngest siblings cry.

Celia: Celia doesn’t say anything to her siblings about the real reason that Mom left. She keeps it to herself. Her secret. Dad’s secret. But when Sophia and Logan begin to cry she knows, as the oldest, that she has to do something. She scoops the child onto her lap, bouncing her knees, and pulls Sophia close beside her.

“It’s okay,” she says to them. “It’s gonna be okay.”

GM: Celia’s siblings sniff and cuddle against her. Dad hugs them all and proclaims how Celia is the “lady of the house,” now.

Isabel is the only one who doesn’t need comfort. She gushes to Dad how much she loves him. How he won big, with the election. How much she loves him, again. He hugs the 12-year-old back. He tells them they’ll get through this.

It’s still a glum afternoon. Dad has to leave the house: there’s work to be done for the senator-elect. The housekeeper looks after them. Celia is working on homework in her bedroom when she gets a call on her cellphone. The caller ID reads ‘Mom.’

She can pick up. Hear whatever Mom wants to say.

Or she can trust Dad.

Celia: Celia glances toward the open door of her bedroom. She closes it before she returns to her desk and the ringing phone, staring down at the caller ID. She takes a breath, then flips open the phone.


GM: “This is Celia Flores?” asks an unfamiliar woman’s voice.

Celia: “…yes?”

GM: “My name is Dr. Crawford. I am the physician who is treating your mother.”

Celia: “Physician?”

GM: “Medical doctor. Your mother is a patient at Tulane Medical Center.”

Celia: “Wait, what happened to my mom?”

GM: “That is something I will leave for her to explain. Your mother was in very bad condition, but she is currently stable. She would like to see you.”

Celia: “At Tulane Medical. She’s okay, though? When was she brought in? What happened?” she asks again, as if the answer will change.

GM: “Your mother is stable. She will be discharged in good health, eventually. I will leave it for her to explain what happened to you,” Dr. Crawford repeats.

“We normally do not notify next of kin about their relatives’ hospitalizations in this manner. It is not a doctor’s responsibility to do so. However, your mother was very insistent, and I felt moved to sympathy for her. She did not wish for your father to be contacted.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t know what to say. She nods. Her mom is hurting. In the hospital. Going through divorce. Cheating on her dad. Selling secrets.

But she’s still Mom.

“Can you… can you ask her if she needs anything from home?”

GM: “I am sorry, but your mother is not always understandable, and I have other patients to see to. I would suggest you bring whatever objects you think would most comfort her. Patients tend to feel better with familiar objects from home.”

Celia: “Oh. Right. Thank you for calling. I’ll be by shortly.”

How long would Dad be gone? Where had he gone? She’ll have to come up with an excuse as to what to tell the housekeeper, something with homework should do… with that in mind she grabs her bag, empties it of school supplies, and sneaks down the hall to her parent’s bedroom to find something to take her mom. Clothing? Knickknacks? Photos, maybe, and some of her jewelry, and that music box, and her scarf… Is Dad going to let her back inside the house to get her stuff?

GM: Celia is left to ponder that question as she offers her excuse, shows her ID to the Blackwatch guards by the gate, and takes the bus down to TMC. An overworked-looking receptionist tiredly provides her with directions to her mother’s room in ICU.

It smells like the alcoholic sort of cleanliness only hospitals have. Like they’re soaked in hand sanitizer. It’s not a comforting smell.

Celia’s mother lies motionless in a hospital bed. She’s wearing a ventilator over her face and has an IV stabbing through her arm. Adjacent machinery beeps sporadically.

She looks horrible. Her face is a black, blue, and purple mass of bruises, and her eyes look almost too swollen to see through. Half of her arms and legs are in casts and splints. A TV plays Jeopardy reruns in the background.

“A baryon is a particle made of three of these which come in flavors including charm and strange.”

“What are… quarks!”

Tinny applause sounds from the televised audience.

Celia: Celia freezes in the doorway. This has to be a mistake. The person in this bed cannot be her mother. But this was the room she’d been directed to. And that was her mother’s hair.


She steps into the room. There is hardly any part of this beaten, broken mass of human that is safe for her to touch. Her eyes water and she wipes at them. She won’t cry. Not now. Not here.

GM: The bruised head slowly tilts towards hers.

There’s that exaggerated, machine-like breathing through the ventilator.

Tears leak from swollen eyes.

Celia: “Mom.” The word is a pained exhale. She drops her bag onto the chair and leans over her mother, trying to find some way to offer comfort. But hugging will displace the tubes. “Momma, I’m here. It’s Celia. I’m here.”

She wants to ask what happened, but she doesn’t think her mom can even talk.

GM: The broken figure’s half-visible eyes slowly follow Celia as she leans over.

“I… m… s… or… ry…” she wheezes.

Celia: “Why, Momma? What… what happened? Dad said you’re leaving…”

GM: “I… pr… mised… ge… bet… er…”

Celia: It’s an effort to hold back the tears. Watching her mother struggle to talk, no matter the anger that had coiled so tightly in her belly early this morning, breaks her heart. She is no monster.

“It will get better. It will. I’ll…”

What? What will you do, Celia, at fourteen years old with your life crumbling around you?

“I’ll keep them safe.”

From Daddy. From the monster who makes even Daddy cry, who tucks her into bed at night. And each time there’s blueberry pancakes in the morning. How often had he been there? Her head is reeling, mind spinning in too many different directions. How many plates of blueberry pancakes in bed?

“Did you … fall?” she asks her mom. She tastes the lie as she asks. Her own body hurts, an echo of last night’s pain, the thing that was all in her head, the thing she had imagined. Her mind rebels against going down that path before she can fully grasp the thought. Not real, not real, not real.

“What happened?” She has to know. If she hears her mom say it, admit it, that’s proof. Proof the thing was in their house. Proof her nightmare, that time she saw blood, Isabel’s budding distance, is not just in her head.

GM: But the question is a terrible one, in the memories it must surely conjure, and all the implications that could burst forth like the insides of a rotten fruit. Her mom’s eyes are suddenly in a distant, faraway place, and Celia is left to wonder and wonder and wonder.

“I… can… t… da… nce… an…. more…”

Celia: Celia’s eyes dart towards her mother’s legs. Broken. Wrapped so heavily in splints and gauze and whatever else that she only knows them from their position on the body. The scent of blood hits her, her mother’s screams fill her ears, the dull thwack of her face on the floor. Bile rises up her throat. She swallows it down.

“Mom, of course you’ll dance again.” The lie is blueberries and maple syrup. “It’s just a break, right? Just a… you fell?” They both fell. Please, God, please, just a fall. “You’ll do, um… therapy. Daddy will get you a good therapist for your leg…”

But Daddy won’t, Celia knows, and the knowledge sits heavy in her gut. Her family is broken, as broken as her mother’s body.

GM: Celia’s mom doesn’t say anything in response to that. The lie might be blueberries and maple syrup, but you can’t eat those with a ventilator over your face, and maybe it wouldn’t be medically advisable anyways. Her still-wet eyes seem to glaze over for a moment before she croaks past the medical equipment’s steady beeping,

“Hol… me…”

Celia: “Of… of course, Momma…” Celia leans in, looking for a safe place to hold her mother. She waits until her face is hidden in her mother’s hair to let the tears slip from beneath her lids.

GM: They can look for hiding places all they like. Find the cleverest ones on earth.

But the tears will still flow.

Tuesday afternoon, 25 November 2003

GM: The next weeks at the Flores household have a grim mood as everyone tries to move past what’s happened. Celia’s father believes in as clean a break as possible. True to his adage on not doing anything by half-measures, he gathers up all of her mother’s things—clothes, shoes, books, jewelry, the newly cut-out parts of family photos, everything else that isn’t reclaimable for the larger family’s use, even favorite movies and furniture—and dumps it all in the trash.

It’s the threat that was never carried out to burn Celia’s entire wardrobe.

He has to make several separate trips for all the ballet stuff. Tutus, costumes, awards and trophies ranging from 2003 to the 1980s, all those pairs of tights and pointe shoes and the attendant sewing materials, medical tape, toe spacers, toe socks, pads, and all those other less than glamorous parts of the vocation. Isabel helps their dad stuff it all in black garbage bags and vocally declares how glad she is not to have to take dance lessons anymore.

“I didn’t want to be a dancer. It was dumb.”

The makeup all goes, too. No more concealer.

Celia: “Dad,” Celia speaks up, waiting for a moment when she can catch him alone, “should we return her trophies to Grandma?” She keeps her tone polite, curious, as if it does not bother her what happens to it all.

There’s a brief pause, as the implication sets in.

“Daddy, are we still going to see her?”

GM: “Nothing by half-measures, sweetie,” Celia’s dad answers. “Your grandma doesn’t talk with your mother, so we won’t either.”

“We can forget about the trophies. This will be a clean break.”

That’d mean at least one set of grandparents to stay in touch with. Dad’s never seemed to be around as much after the Worst Birthday Ever.

Sugar Cube, though, is still doing fine. Ponies live longer than any cats or dogs.

Celia: Celia wants to ask her father if he’d cut ties with her like that if she ever decides to leave her husband. She wants to ask if he’d let her husband dictate whether or not they could see each other, if a career is worth more than her. But she nods instead, kisses his cheek when prompted, and keeps her mouth shut.

GM: Her dad kisses her back and says he’ll always love her. It’s later that night when she spots their housekeeper rummaging through the garbage bins and pocketing her mother’s jewelry.

Celia: Celia thinks to tell her father. Clean break. But it’s her mother. Her mother’s jewelry. It should go to Celia, if anyone. She goes to confront the woman.

GM: She’s a Hispanic woman named Luana who reacts with instant defensiveness and angrily tells off the 14-year-old,

“Your dad wants all this stuff gone! Doesn’t matter what happens after it’s out of the house, does it? You doing this for your madre? Bet she’d rather have the ballet stuff than jewels. Or, what, you want more of those for you? Ask your daddy to buy you some, like that stupid pony I still have to take care of. I bet he never tells you no.”

Celia: “I don’t want the jewels,” Celia scoffs at her. She points at the tube of concealer. “I want that. And…”

She picks up a pendant. It’s a dainty thing, a flower, one that her mother wore frequently.

“I’ll tell you when to bring in more of this,” Celia taps the tube of concealer, “and I won’t tell anyone I saw you trash picking. I’ll leave the money for it in my room.” She levels a stare at the woman.

GM: The housekeeper glares as Celia takes away the pendant. That’s one less she’ll get to wear herself or hawk to a pawnshop.

“Fine. All the concealer you want.” She glares a moment longer, as if thinking of something hurtful. “You should feel horrible, doing this to your madre. I respect mine! I’d never throw out all her things, behind her back!”

Celia: Celia isn’t going to be lectured by a housekeeper. She takes her treasures and turns away, unwilling to let the woman see the way the words strike her.

“Would your madre be proud to see you digging through trash now?”

GM: Celia can’t see the anger and embarrassment on the woman’s face, but she hears it in her voice as she calls after Celia’s back, “Not all of us have daddies who buy us whatever we want!”

There’s a lower-muttered, “Brat.”

Celia: Celia doesn’t voice her next thought Luana, though. It’s none of her business.

But she is sure that she will one day pay for everything her father has given her.

Just like Mom did.

Wednesday afternoon, 26 November 2003

GM: Celia’s mom calls her again, some time after the ‘clean break.’ She’s able to talk in longer sentences, but quietly cries at the news that all of her possessions are gone—especially the old ballet things. It’s plain that the added loss wounds her deeply.

Celia: Celia asks again what happened. She mentions she saved a pendant, and that she told Daddy to give her things to Grandma, but he wouldn’t. She feels her own her break when she tells her mom that Isabel is going to drop dance. Celia realizes that this is what Luana was talking about that night: she thought Celia was taking the jewelry for her mother, but Celia had been selfish. It was for her. A knot twists in her belly.

GM: Her mother doesn’t look surprised by the news that Daddy wouldn’t save her things, but she does manage a sadly rueful smile at the news about Isabel.

“I didn’t expect… you or her were goin’ to be ballerinas… that wasn’t your dream. It was just… somethin’ for you to do as… kids.”

Celia: “I was never very graceful.” Celia’s laugh is watery.

GM: Her mom slowly reaches up with a thin-looking hand to stroke your cheek. “You tried… sweetie… I was so proud… how much you tried…”

But it’s the rose pendant that brings a new wave of tears to her mother’s bruised eyes. For the first time, they are not sad ones.

“Oh-h… Celia… I got this… from your grandma… from her mom… and her mom… and hers… it’s been in our family forever…”

“There’s a… story… about how we… in France, from a… it’s just a… funny old story… I’ll tell you… later…”

Celia: “From a what, Momma? Will you tell me the story?” Her smile is worth Luana’s cruel words.

GM: “Y… yes, sweetie… later… when my voice’s… better…”

She presses it back into Celia’s hands.

“I want… you to have it… now… you saved it…”

Celia: “I can’t.”

If Daddy sees… she doesn’t need to say the words, they’re there in her head, screaming loud and clear. Bent over his lap is the least of her troubles. A pair of steely eyes float in her vision. She swallows.

“For my 21st birthday,” she tells her mom. “College graduation. Or a wedding present.” She can’t keep it in the house.

“Mom… will you tell me… that night?”

GM: Celia’s sober words instantly banish the dreamy and perhaps morphine-fueled look from her mother’s wet, still-bruised eyes.

“Yes…” she nods somberly, “he might… flush it down the… toilet… we’ll… save it for when… you’re moved out…”

Celia: He would do worse than that. But Celia nods, and waits.

GM: Her mother is silent for a long time. Celia wonders for a moment if her mom has heard her, but that’s only for a moment: it’s plain in the older woman’s eyes that the question got through.

She looks at Celia, her eyes welling with simultaneous fear, love, pain, pride, then finally comes out and says,

“Celia… your dad… isn’t really your dad…”

Celia: Whatever she had expected her mother to say, this wasn’t it. Surely she misheard. Surely her mother is joking. Her mouth is dry. She clears her throat and licks her lips, then leans over the bed as if that will take away the words her mother just said.

My little princess. Give daddy a kiss, baby girl. The voice that was not her father’s. His arms around her, his lips on her forehead. Special little girl.

“What?” She forgets herself, throwing out societal grace with the curt word. Her voice is thin.

GM: Her mother closes her eyes for a moment. Tears well around the purpled flesh.

“Your father is… another man… I was… very young…”

“It… was around… the same time… I was… seeing your dad… that… I mean… seeing… Max…”

“I… wanted him… to be your… dad… it was… the same… time… he could’ve…”

She takes a long, raggedy breath through the ventilator.

“I just… buried it… deep…”

“We were… happy… and he… was your… is your… dad… he raised… you…”

Celia: She has so many questions.

“Who is it? Are you… positive? Does he know? Does Dad know?”

What does this mean for me?

GM: The beeps from the medical equipment intensify as lines spike. The terror in her mother’s eyes is plain as she shakes her head back and forth.

“You… can’t… tell… him… don’t… ever… breathe a…”

“He’ll… kill… me…”

Celia: “I won’t, Momma. I won’t tell him. Of course I won’t.”

GM: There’s a relieved sigh from the ventilator.

“He… I don’t think… but he…”

“I found it… in the mai… DNA test…”

“Don’t… know from… no return address…”

“But… maybe… Bill Roberts… the campaign…”

“But… not in… papers…”

“I don’t… how he’d know…”

“It does… doesn’t make…”

“I don’t know… I don’t know…”

Celia: Bill Roberts. There’s that name again. But her mother’s words don’t make any sense. She tries to be patient, to let the woman speak, but none of it makes any sense.

“Bill Roberts is my dad? Daddy said… said you were cheating with him..?” she tapers off into a question, but that can’t be right. He said Mom was giving him campaign secrets. If he knew Celia was his daughter… wouldn’t that have made news?

“Who’s my dad, Mom? Was that why you… left?”

GM: Celia’s mom shakes her head.

“He’s… not your… dad… just… maybe he was… behind…”

At her daughter’s next questions, she shakes her head even more adamantly, tears welling in her eyes again.

Celia: He ruined our family.

GM: “I… didn’t… I… didn’t…”

Celia: Celia squeezes her mother’s hand, offering what comfort she can.

“You didn’t… leave? Want to leave?”

GM: Her mom gives her hand a limp squeeze back.

“I… m… yes… your father… was… hitting me…”

“Didn’… let you… see… let any of you… see…”

“Lots… concealer…”

Several tears run past the ventilator.

“I’m… sorry… Celia… I didn’t… prot… ect… you…”

“I… wasn’… tryi… g… hold you… down…”

“I j… w… wanted…. to… hold your… hand…”

“I’m… s… sorr… y…”

“So… sor… ry…”

Celia: That explains why, no matter how much Celia used, there was always more. Dad hit Mom. The blood on the staircase. The fear. The anger. Did Isabel know? Was that why she’d been a brat about it? Does Daddy hit her, too?

She sits back. She doesn’t know what to say. She chews on her lip, her mind racing. She doesn’t even care about that day anymore. The humiliation of being bent over her father’s knee is just one item on a long list.

“You told him you were leaving and he attacked,” she whispers. She hears it again, the screaming. The thud of her mom hitting the floor.

GM: The tears slipping past the ventilator leave wet streaks across her mother’s hospital gown.

“I’m… sor… ry… Cel… ia… I w… ish… I cou… take it… back… stood… up to hi… for you…”

“I… don… I’m… so… sorry…”

Celia: Me too.

“It’s okay.”

GM: Her mother closes her eyes again.

It’s not okay.

They both know it.

Her voice is calmer when she speaks again, but still wet and uneven behind the ventilator. “You… can’t… see me… anymore… your dad… won’t… want you…”

Celia: “I know.” Her voice breaks. Daddy already told them. Clean break. But he doesn’t have eyes and ears everywhere. He can’t see her at school. Or when she’s eighteen. She can…

Nothing. She can nothing.

She can toe the line, like a good girl, and not give Daddy a reason to throw her out if he finds out the truth.

“Where is the test result?”

GM: “It’s… slipped it… pocket… my pink coat… closet…”

Her mother’s eyes focus in remembrance, then scrunch.

“Oh… d… amn…”

“It… doesn… was just… lots… numbers… need to… be a… scientist… to… better… it’s… gone… don’t… want… him to… see…”

“And… you… shouldn… see… your… other… fath… er…”

Celia: “It’s gone?” How would her mother even know that, she hasn’t been back to the house. But the closet was emptied. She will have to check when she gets home. “Who is he, Mom?”

GM: Celia’s mom falls initially silent, but then looks at the rose pendant.

“Ron… Landreneau…”

“He’s a… screenwriter…”

“Lives in… Hollywood…”

Celia: The name means nothing to her.

But, “Hollywood? How did you meet him?”

GM: “It was… at a…”

Her mother trails off.

“Celia… you have to… understand… he was… a lot… older…”

“And he’s… black…”

Celia: “…oh.”

“Does he know I exist?”

GM: Her mother shakes her head.

Celia: “And he’s… black.”

Which makes her… black. She looks down at her hands, as fair as her siblings’. Maybe she tans a little more in the summer. Maybe her lips are a little fuller, her hair a little more wild. But… black?

“I’m not… I can’t be…”

She waves her hand as if to prove her point. There is no way. None.

GM: “Celia…” her mom starts, “I was… back then… I didn’t want it… to be true… I’d have been so ashamed…”

She reaches out with a frail hand to stroke Celia’s cheek. Her smile is fragile, and all the more so against her still-bruised, bandaged, and swollen face, but the warmth and pride shining through is unmistakable.

“But I look at you… you’re beautiful… whoever… your dad… was…”

Celia: “Not wanting it to be true doesn’t mean it isn’t.” Celia pulls away, eyes wide. “How could you do this to me? You slept with—with a nigger, and you tell me now that I’m his but it’s okay because I’m beautiful?” She spits the word out at her mother. Even angry, she’s careful to keep her voice down.

“You let Daddy—Dad—hit me, you helped him do it, and this is why, because you… because you spread your legs like… like…” She can’t do it, she can’t call her mother a whore. Tears fall down her cheeks, blinding her. “He’ll disown me, he’ll…”

Clean break. She’ll be nothing. No one. A halfbreed mongrel.

“What about Isabel? David?” She’s pleading now. Please let it be not true. Let it be the drugs her mom is on. “What about the guy that night, did you sleep with him too?”

GM: The smile on her mom’s face shatters into a thousand pieces at Celia’s next words.

Her hand limply falls. Fresh tears join her daughter’s.

“C… Celia… I love you… don’t… don’t hate… yourself… there’s… so much… about you… to love… love yourself…”

Celia: “Myself? I don’t hate myself. I didn’t choose this.” She wipes at her eyes, at her nose. Her arm comes away shiny and wet. “You did this. You ruined everything. You let him do this to you, and to me, and to all of them, and now there’s no one, there’s no one but me, and I’m not even… I’m…”

Her words blur into hiccups. She covers her face. No wonder Daddy doesn’t love her. No wonder he takes away her things; he knows what a whore Mom was and is afraid she’ll turn out the same way. Pregnant in high school. She’s done the math. But it was worse than that, worse than any of them knew.

“I have to go.”

GM: “C… ELIA!” her mom cries. The beeps from the adjacent medical equipment turn sharper and shriller as her mother takes a laborious suck of air and shakily rises to a seated position.

Celia: She pauses, turns.


GM: The curt response looks as if it hits her mom’s bruised, beaten face like another slap. Celia can hear her wheezily sucking breath past the ventilator as she spreads her trembling arms.

“Can… I get… a hug…?”

Celia: “No.”

GM: The word seems to take Celia’s mother a second to process.

Then it hits her like her husband’s gut punch.

CELIAAA!” she wails, shakily ambling off the bed. She crashes to the floor in a heap and knocks over her IV stand. Medical equipment shrilly screams as IV fluid and a thin trail of blood spills over the linoleum.

Celia: “Mom!” The anger is gone in a second. Celia rushes forward, dropping to her knees beside her mother. She doesn’t know where to put her hands to help her up.

GM: The commotion swiftly brings hospital staff. Scrub-attired nurses fall over Celia’s mother, doing things she can only pray are helpful. Her mom’s hand weakly grasps for hers before a nurse brusquely separates them.

“You’ll need to wait outside, ma’am.”

Celia: Celia can only nod slowly, sliding back toward the door.

She did this. She really is her father’s daughter.

Wednesday afternoon, 7 January 2004

GM: Life goes on in the Flores household. Celia hears her younger siblings crying sometimes, which Isabel sharply admonishes them for (“Mom decided she doesn’t love us!”), and they never do when Dad is around. Mom doesn’t call again.

Maybe because she thinks Dad will overhear.

Or maybe because she thinks Celia doesn’t want to talk to her.

Celia: Celia speaks to Isabel for her admonishing of the little ones, pointing out they’re just babies and they need time, and asks the younger girl if there’s anything she needs. She doesn’t expect an answer from her wasp-tongued little sister, but she asks all the same.

GM: “I’m fine, you think I’m not?” the 12-year-old replies peevishly, true to Celia’s expectations. “Mom’s a… mom’s a BITCH!”

Celia: Of course.

All the while, she waits for a call that never comes. She can’t get the sight of her fallen mother out of her head, the sound of her body hitting the floor. She dreams of it, of blood and axes and men that are too tall to be her father. She is too old to go crying to Daddy with her nightmares, and Isabel’s heart is hardened and hurting. Celia has no one to talk to. She is alone. Afraid in her own home. Uncertain of her future.

GM: There’s always her friends at McGehee to confide in. But she hears they’ve been talking behind her back ever since that party where she promised to come through with booze from her dad’s private stash and never did.

Bentley Downs is one of the worst gossips. She’s a full two grades younger, but having heard the story from some other eighth grader, she won’t stop running her mouth about it.

Celia: The gossip eats at her. She doesn’t stoop to explain herself, but maybe that makes it worse.

She asks Daddy if she can finally see that dermatologist, terrified he will find her secret stash of concealer. She tries lemon juice and baking powder and oatmeal and egg whites.

GM: The home remedies don’t help. At all. Her skin gets worse. Dad lets her see a dermatologist, though. Anything for his little girl. So long as it isn’t makeup.

He allows the prescribed creams when the doctor explains that it’s not.

Celia: The creams aren’t working quickly enough. She pulls late nights trying to run interference with her siblings and their father, always afraid he will lash out at them next.

Life has become a juggling act.

When she is alone she cries. She thinks once to confide in Luana, but she cannot risk saying the wrong thing, or the woman taking it back to Dad.

Finally, she picks up the phone and calls her mom.

GM: The phone picks up on the first ring.


Celia: “Mom.” Celia’s voice is low. Quiet, heavy.

“Mom, how’s… how’s your… everything?”

GM: “I…” her mother’s voice breaks. Whether at the question, the sound of Celia’s voice, or both, may be a question of idle curiosity to the eighth grader before her mom continues, “It’s been hard, sweetie… it’s been very hard… but I’ve managed…”

“Tell me about you.” Her voice immediately brightens. “I want to hear all about you. How’s school? How’s your skin? How’s… things at home?”

Celia: “It’s… it’s bad, Mom, it’s really bad.”

The words pour out of her and she cannot stop them: the childish troubles at school, the gossip from that little bitch that she is sure Isabel is fueling, the burn on her face from the lemon juice, the way she can’t sleep because she is afraid that at any moment her life will come crashing down around her, Isabel’s sudden hostility…

She wants to mention the eyes, the eyes that haunt her nights, the monster that came out from under the bed and won’t go back beneath it. The screams she hears when she tries to sleep. The way she cannot go into Isabel’s room without being struck by terror, as if at any moment something will drag her off. The sight of her mother reaching for her, falling, when she turned away. But she does not say these things.

“I don’t know how to help them, I don’t know what to do if he gets mad again, I just don’t know,” she finishes. She has been walking on eggshells around her father, afraid to set him off. “What if it’s me next?” How could you leave us here?

GM: “Oh, sweetie… I’m so sorry… you shouldn’t have to go through any of this…”

“Your father never got that mad at you and the others… usually it was me. I don’t want to lie to you things could never get worse, I know you’ve been on the bad end of his temper, but… I think children are different to him, than a wife.”

“If worst comes to worst, if you’re ever really scared for yourself, for your siblings… tell him I’ve been calling the house. That’ll… that’ll get his mind off things, I think.”

“Just call me, if he gets in the car.”

Celia: This is not what she wants to hear.

“I’m sorry. About… the hospital. Is your leg..?”

GM: “It’s… I’m sorry, sweetie. I should’ve broken it to you more slowly. After you’d had some time, to digest everything else.”

“That was all too much, just too much, to unload on you at once…”

Celia: “Mom… what happened with dad’s dad?”

GM: There’s a pause, as if Celia’s mom is considering whether or not to tell her.

But she has her daughter on the phone. So she answers, “Honey, there’s no good way to put this… your grandmother had an affair with another man. Your grandfather raised your father, but…”

“Well. You remember.”

As if wanting to change the topic, she adds, “My leg is… I can walk, but ballet… ballet’s over. At least on the big stage.”

“It’s… it’s not that bad. There’s very few dancers who do it past their mid-30s. Very, very few dancers. I’m 30, my best years were already behind me.”

“I’ve been teaching, at a local dance studio. I’ll start at McGehee soon. That was always the plan, after I retired.”

Celia: Celia is struck by the words her mother says to her. Grandmother had an affair. Grandfather raised Daddy, but… it is that ‘but’ that clues her in. Daddy isn’t Grandfather’s child? She isn’t Daddy’s child. Her heart lurches. Is this the future that is in store for her, alienation and isolation? Will she hate him, too? Hate the whole family?

She tries to picture it. Showing up for a birthday party with a gift. Thrown out by Isabel because she isn’t a real Flores. Ruining a child’s birthday.

She is so busy contemplating her own future, trying to find a way to cement her place in the family, that she almost misses the words of her mother.

“McGehee? Momma, that’s… that’s wonderful. I can see you at school. I already told Daddy I don’t want to stop dancing, I’ll—”

She’ll what? Substitute having a mother at home for an hour during the school day? Act cold and aloof towards her own mom during class so it doesn’t get back to Isabel, then Dad?

“I called… I called the police that night, Momma. They wouldn’t come. They said they were on their way and then they weren’t.” She sniffs, rubbing her eyes. “I should have gone next door, I should have shot that man, I should have—have saved you.”

GM: “N-no, sweetie,” her mom quickly amends. “Don’t think that, that there’s anything more you could’ve done… that would’ve destroyed your life, when the cops got there. I don’t ever want to lose you like that.”

“And the cops did get there… do you not remember?”

“I don’t blame you if you don’t… it was an awful, awful night. There’s a lot I don’t remember, either… I think that’s for the best.”

“But men like your father don’t get arrested by cops. They pay the cops’ salaries.”

Celia: “…what do you mean? They never came. They said they were in their way, and then they weren’t, and then there was a… a man there who… who might have… maybe he was a policeman..?”

But he had tucked her in. Did policemen do that? And she had seen him before.

GM: “They did come, sweetie… the Blackwatch people are only a minute from the house. The cops came after them, with an ambulance… you got it to show up. You’re… you’re why I’m still alive, Celia…”

Her mom sniffs. “I’m so proud of you… you were so, so brave…”

Celia: “I don’t…”

I don’t remember any of that.

“What about… the tall man? He was there before… before anyone. Did he pull Dad off you?”

GM: “The tall man?” her mother asks uncertainly.

“Maybe one of them was tall. I blacked out, sweetie. The doctors tell me it was from fear and shock. They said my heart actually stopped for a bit, to protect me from shock.”

Celia: You’re imagining things, he had told her. Had she imagined him? Had shock made her imagine the entire thing? But… she’d seen him before. She and Isabel had both seen him before. That night of the birthday party. And yet… there hadn’t been a crime scene. There hadn’t been blood. Isabel hadn’t found pieces of bone or skin or—her stomach churns at the thought of bits of her mother lying on the floor. She can’t think of it. She won’t.

“Oh,” she says instead. “I… I guess I…” But Mom confirmed that she had been attacked.

Celia can’t breathe.

“I think I’m just in shock, too, Mom.” She doesn’t want her mom to worry. “I have to go though. We will talk soon, okay? I love you. And I’m… I’m sorry.”

GM: Celia can see the apprehension on her mom’s face even across the phone, but the older woman answers,

“Okay, sweetie… but don’t be sorry. You saved my life. I love you so, so much…”

Winter 2004

High school (or “upper school” as it’s called at McGehee) is better and worse.

Celia’s mom doesn’t see her at school. It’s “too dangerous,” in her words. People might talk. She’s scared her husband (well, ex-husband) already knows she works at McGehee. Celia can’t take any of the dance classes there.

Celia feels like she’s walking on eggshells around her dad. But he doesn’t get mad. Everyone does things his way. Everyone feels closer, after Mom walked out on them. Celia’s mother implores her (over the phone) not to rock the boat, not to risk upsetting him. Just do what he wants.

That means no makeup still. No dating. No dances. No boys. No bad movies. No staying out after curfew.

David is allowed to date once he enters seventh grade. It’s different for boys.

Dad seems to find his decision vindicated when Rebecca Whitney, the prom queen and most popular girl in school, is killed in a car crash by a drunk driver on the eve of her senior prom. Boys are involved. The school community is devastated. Dad presses the school to get rid of coed proms altogether, but the administration ultimately chooses to keep them. They just come down hard on student drinking and hire a psychologist to counsel grieving students and faculty.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina drowns half the city. The Flores are barely affected. Audubon Place is safely removed from floodwaters, looters, unauthorized entrants alike. The Blackwatch mercenaries shoot anyone who tries to get in and doesn’t belong.

Celia doesn’t see, though. Her family just stays at a nice hotel in Baton Rouge for a while. It’s convenient, being so nearby the state legislature. Dad is always making drives up there. He and Nathan Malveaux, the Senate minority leader and state GOP chair, are working overtime like demons in the hurricane’s aftermath.

It’s not even that long before they get to go home. Most of the city looks like a third world country’s war zone, but Audubon Place is all but untouched, and McGehee soon reopens its doors. Besides the hurricane, the new Devillers girls are the talk of the school.

Cécilia Devillers seems strangely above the usual gossip and social backbiting. She listens to it, but without encouraging any story’s spread, and people just love telling her things. She’s kind and sympathetic to everyone. Everything about McGehee’s new tenth grade queen bee seems almost seems too perfect, sometimes. There’s never anything wrong in her life that other people have to be sympathetic about.

Celia: It’s hard not to like Cécilia. Even though she’s effortlessly perfect. Even though someone started the joke that Celia is just a Cécilia knockoff, the bottom of the barrel bargain. What started as a joke about her name festers into something more. But Celia smiles, because Daddy told her that’s what ladies do even when they’re sad or mad or hurting. They smile. And Cécilia herself never said anything about Celia’s mom working at the school with a busted leg, or waxed poetic about dreams cut short, or asked if Celia had tried Accutane. And that’s… that’s nice.

GM: Ladies do smile. Every girl who goes to the “West Point for Southern belles” wants to be a lady.

Smiles are the best way to hide one’s knives.

There’s a girl named Samantha Watts who really seems to have it out for Cécilia. Celia gets some pictures from her of Cécilia’s cheating boyfriend (Elliot Faustin) caught in the act. After that “Celia—The Cheaper Cécilia Knockoff” note that got passed around in class one embarrassing day, Sami must think she has it out for her longer-named counterpart. Celia can try to stifle the scandal, and perhaps win the queen bee’s favor, or try to help knock the queen off her throne and win the new claimant’s favor. Perhaps even make a claim for that throne herself.

And that makes her mom, her grandpa, and now the school’s queen bee. It seems like no one is ever in a faithful relationship.

GM: Movies seem to be everywhere, too. Elliot and his movie. Ronnie Landreneau and his.

Celia’s seen his name in a bunch of places, with a bunch of movies. Breached. Heck of a Job. That ongoing TV show set in the Quarter. His name’s been hot stuff ever since Katrina. He moved back to the city.

Celia: It isn’t Cécilia’s fault. That’s what Celia tells herself. That’s how she justifies her actions when she makes a move to squash the rumors. Because it isn’t Cécilia’s fault that people ask if the Flores couldn’t afford the two extra letters, and no one—even pristine princesses—deserve to have a cheating scandal thrown in their face so publicly. She’s never dated, but she can imagine the betrayal. She felt some small echo of it when she found out her whole life was a lie.

She keeps the photos—Daddy doesn’t allow this sort of material in the house and she’s, well, curious—and discourages the rumor. Samantha Watts is the kind of girl to fuck her own uncle, after all, why would a boy like Elliot sleep with her?

GM: Sami Watts still has the photos herself, of course. They have Elliot’s face in them. She gets them out to more girls, who share them with friends.

But if there’s one thing Celia has learned to do from both her parents, it’s keep up appearances.

Gossip at Cafe Louise, passed notes in class, after-school phone calls, slumber parties—it all builds the entirely believable-feeling narrative that Elliot was just a dirtbag, and not good enough for Cécilia, cheating on her the way he did—she’s always so nice to everybody. And what even happened to that movie he promised, anyway? He never came through with that. There’s talk Sami was supposed to be the lead actress. She’s clearly pissed at him—and oh are there rumors about her, with how much class she’s been missing, how out of it she seems. Didn’t she go to the school nurse with…

Cécilia approaches Celia after school when all of their identically-dressed classmates are heading off to their cars.

“I’ve heard what sorts of things you’ve been saying about me and Elliot. Thanks for that,” she smiles.

“The breakup has already been rough. But it’s let me know who’s really a friend and who’s not.”

Celia: “You know what they say about grasping hands.”

GM: Cécilia seems to study her shorter-named classmate for a moment, then touches her arm.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I suppose that is exactly the sort of thing I’d also say to girls who’ve been badmouthing me. I mean it, really. Thank you for having my back.”

Celia: Celia nods. “I don’t know what happened with Watts to make her dislike you so much, but for what it’s worth I’m sorry about you and Elliot. I didn’t know him very well, but cheating…” She trails off. “Well. If you need a girls night or anything.”

GM: “That sounds great,” Cécilia smiles. “I’m definitely feeling a little tired of nights with boys right now.”

“And… I’m not sure that it’s any of my business, but if there’s anything I can do for you, or your mom…”

Celia: There’s a small part of her that wants to confide. The hacksaw. The police. The abuse.

But word travels fast at McGehee, and Celia knows better than to confide in her classmates, no matter how well intentioned. Her smile might be slow, and it might not reach her eyes, but it’s as genuine as she can make it to mask the concern.

“I appreciate that, Cécilia, I really do. I’ll let you know if I think of anything. For now it’s just…” She doesn’t know what she can safely say. Any of her words could be misconstrued. “Just drama,” she finishes with a sigh and a rueful smile. “Honestly I need more help with Isabel than anything. Sisters, right?”

GM: “Oh, I know what you mean there. I live with five,” Cécilia answers with a rueful smile of her own. “How could Isabel be a less… help-needing sister, if you could pick any way?”

Celia: “Less… bull-headed?” Celia scrunches up her nose. “Less ornery and… angry, I guess. She’s so… difficult. Shut down, closed off. Like the world is against her and I’m here on her side and she won’t talk to me and I guess I’m just… frustrated.” Celia runs a hand through her hair. “She keeps lashing out and I’m concerned she’s going to do it to the wrong person and it’s going to blow up in her face. And maybe that needs to happen for her, but also she’s my sister. Does.. that make sense?”

GM: “I think that does,” Cécilia nods. “You’re hurt by what she’s doing, and you’re worried she’s going to hurt herself if she keeps doing it. But you also think that getting hurt might teach her a lesson, so she won’t get hurt later.”

“It’s not good to always be angry. And if you can’t get through her with sympathy, I think it sounds healthy for her to release that anger through some kind of outlet.”

“Are there any less harmful ones where you think she maybe could?”

Celia: “An outlet,” Celia repeats, nodding. “That’s a good idea. I like that. I’ll have to find something she and I, or even just she, can get into. I guess it isn’t dance.” She forces a laugh. “I’ll look into that, thanks.” Her smile is easier this time. “Everything holding up on your end?”

GM: “Dance might be tough, if it’s associated with your mom,” Cécilia agrees.

“It’s been… difficult with Elliot, I admit.”

“My mom found out he’d been lying to me, about everything. Who his family was, going to film school, even his name—it’s actually Emmett. The person I’d thought was my boyfriend was basically all made up.”

“It’s made me more suspicious of people. Part of me wonders what they might be lying about. And I know I don’t want to think or feel that way.”

Celia: “Wow, that’s… wow. I can’t even imagine…”

But she can, can’t she? Isn’t she, too, a fraud? Not that she had a choice in the matter. She does now, but that’s… different. Already so firmly embedded, right?

She realizes that this, perhaps, is why El—Emmett—did what he did. He was already in too deep.

“I think, sometimes, people lie about everything. And lie to themselves more than anything else. And… maybe—please don’t take this the wrong way—maybe it’s better that ‘Elliot’ doesn’t really exist. Like he’s… still out there somewhere, the person you thought he was, you know? And you get to find him, now that you know you’re looking.”

GM: “That’s true. That’s a really beautiful way of looking at things,” Cécilia smiles. “I have a better sense of what I’m looking for in boyfriends, now. So I am looking for him.”

Celia: “You’ll have to tell me all the details; my dad has a thing against dating right now.” Celia rolls her eyes, as if it’s no big deal, as if plenty of girls can’t wear makeup or talk to boys or go to dances. “So, five sisters? That sounds… intense.”

GM: “Oh, I’m sorry,” Cécilia frowns sympathetically. “I have a few friends who are in a similar boat, you might enjoy talking with them. It feels like there are more girls who can’t date at the Ursuline Academy, but they definitely go to McGehee too.”

“And yes, it is. We don’t have any dad or brothers, so it’s just us and Maman.” She smiles knowingly. “Men don’t run in our genes.”

Celia: “Trust me, you’re not missing anything. My younger brother just hit that age where he’s starting to notice girls. I don’t think he’s talked about anything else since.”

GM: “I guess that’s one benefit of an all-girls school, isn’t it? We really aren’t missing anything being surrounded by boys that age all the time.”

Wednesday evening, 4 June 2008

GM: Celia doesn’t have to sit through the boy-less high school that much longer, though, before graduation day. It feels like there’s such a dark cloud at home, sometimes: everyone’s felt so tired and drained since Mom left. Isabel is so snappish and irritable the younger kids are trying to avoid her. They’re glum Celia is leaving, and then when she tells Dad she wants to go to Tulane, guilty over being glad she isn’t leaving. It’s a coed school, so Celia will continue to live at home and account for where she is at what hours.

It’s either Tulane or Liberty University. He approves of the curriculum and student honor code there.

Her dad tells her that she may start to date boys while at college. There may be (chaste) kissing, so long as she brings them home to meet him first. She will see a gynecologist every two semesters to check whether her hymen is still intact.

He reminds her of one of his favorite quotes: “‘Girls are like apples on trees. Their fathers are the farmers, whose job is to care for them. He must protect his apples from pests and disease. He must guard them against thieves who may pick his apples prematurely. Neither those at the top nor those at the bottom can help their location. But, when each reaches peak ripeness, it is the farmer’s job to harvest that fruit and give it to whom he will, to those in need. So there is nothing wrong with the apples still on the tree and nothing wrong with the boys who seek them. But it is the farmer’s duty to provide for both, in due season.’”

Celia: Celia asks her father to have dinner one night, just the two of them, to talk about her future plans. He has already taken her for her first visit to the gynecologist, and she suffered some mild cramps afterward from the biopsy that was taken, but the spotting has ended and her virginity is intact, and so she has arranged for the children to be away for the evening so she and her father can talk over his favorite meal. A graduation celebration. Or virginal victory.

Regardless, she is dressed as a woman now rather than a girl, though the neckline is modest and her shoes flat. She will not risk upsetting him. She stands at his side, pours his wine, and serves him first from the to-go boxes. Her lips press against his cheek before she sits beside him, the newly resized promise ring on her finger.

“Thank you for humoring me, Daddy. I know you’re busy with everything, so I appreciate you taking the time. And I thought this would be a nice break.” She smiles.

GM: “It is, sweetie,” her dad smiles as he kisses her cheek back. “It feels like we have a lady in the house again.”

“I’ve thought of remarrying, more than once. It would be good for your siblings to have a woman in their life.”

“But I’ve never been able to shake the thought she wouldn’t accept you as her own.”

“You don’t need that in your lives.”

Celia: “Oh? I didn’t know that. Would you… have more children if you did?” It’s an interesting thought. More little Maxens running around. She wonders if he has met someone and decides she would rather not know. “We want you to be happy, Daddy.”

GM: “I know you do, sweetie. I wouldn’t have more children. Five is enough. Their mother would always love any new ones more than you.”

“I can’t blame anyone for valuing their own flesh and blood more than a stranger’s. But that wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“In the wild, many male animals kill the previous offspring of females they take for mates, to ensure she will be fully devoted to their new offspring’s protection and survival. God may have created us first and in His image, but He endowed us with many of the same instincts as animals.”

“No one wants to raise a child that isn’t theirs.”

Her dad sips his wine.

“We’ll have you take cooking classes in college. I should have remembered those for you at McGehee. You need to know how to cook for your husband.”

Celia: Celia’s mouth is dry. She reaches for the glass of water in front of her, wondering what it would be like if she had a glass of wine as well.

“I heard that some animals eat their young. The mothers, I mean. To… to give the surviving children a better chance to thrive.” The thought turns her stomach. The entire topic turns her stomach, and the meal in front of her is suddenly less appealing. She spears a cherry tomato on the tines of her fork and cuts it in half, focusing on the simple act of drawing the blade back and forth. It does little to settle her.

“I was hoping,” she says after a moment, “to, um, to talk to you about that. Thriving, I mean. And success. I… there’s no easy way to say this, Daddy. I feel this—this pressure to make you proud, and I think sometimes, I get in my head about it, and I just… I hope you’re not… disappointed that I chose Tulane instead of Liberty. Because I just—I wanted to stay close, and I hope that’s not wrong or small of me —”

She cuts herself off.

GM: Her dad frowns and looks up at her from cutting his steak. Celia picked it up at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

“Why are you nervous, sweetie?”

“I wouldn’t have let you go to Tulane if I didn’t approve.”

He takes a bite. “Logan and the others are still young. It’s good for them to have a woman in their lives.”

“The university has that nonsense requirement about living on campus, but Mr. McGregor lives next door. He’ll get it waived.”

Celia: “Oh. That… oh. Right. Of course. I think I just imagined…” She pushes the mangled mess she’d made of the tomato around on her plate. “This, sorry, this wasn’t even what I wanted to talk about in regards to going. There was just… I want to do well, in life and in school, so I wanted your input on what I should, um, pursue. Major wise.” She takes a breath. “It’s not even a big deal, I don’t know why I’m so flustered, I think I’m just nervous about picking the wrong thing and being stuck.”

GM: “Don’t play with your food,” her dad admonishes.

He cuts off another bite of steak.

“You should study something in the liberal arts. Something that will be a good conversation piece with your husband.”

“Theology. English. History. Music. Drama. Art History. Majors like those.”

Celia: “Drama like acting? Would you come visit in Hollywood if I make it big?” She’s only teasing.

GM: Her dad had been fine with her taking private lessons. Her mom wasn’t fine. She was thrilled.

“Hollywood is disgusting and obscene,” he answers without smiling. “I’d never let you go there.”

Celia: She nods agreeably.

“Anyway, I was looking through Tulane’s brochure, I saw that they have a dance program…” she trails off. She had stuck with her private lessons, even though she hadn’t been able to take the ballroom class at McGehee, but she knows the subject is a potentially sore spot for her father.

GM: He frowns at hearing her considered major.

“Why?” he asks simply.

Celia: “I enjoy it. It never came as naturally to me-” Isabel’s robot dancer comment still stings, “-but I feel… free. When I dance, I mean, when I’m in lessons, it’s like the choreography is a guide and within those lines there is a different world entirely and I get to live there and show people that, and when it’s over I’m back here and it’s all the sweeter for having been gone a moment. It’s structured and disciplined but it’s… it’s art, too, and beauty.”

GM: Her dad looks thoughtful at the word ‘disciplined.’

He stops chewing.

He doesn’t say anything.

His eyes look like they’re in a distant place as Celia’s words slowly turn over.

Then he stares directly at her.

“What happened to th…”

“Those aw… those ol…”

He blinks slowly and looks over his now-adult daughter, from her hands to her face.

Jesus, who ar…”

He lifts his wineglass. He doesn’t sip, he quaffs.

He sets it down and fiercely cuts into the steak. Steel scrapes against plate as his face sets.

“Dance is fine, sweetie. Do that.”

He lifts up a bite and chews.

Celia: Celia doesn’t know what is going on with her father. She shrinks back in her chair as the expressions play out on his face. She shouldn’t have brought up dance.

“I can pick something else.”

GM: “Do it,” he repeats, determinedly cutting apart more steak.

Celia: “Okay. Great. And… and you want me to live at home, right?”

GM: “Yes, you will. I already said you weren’t going to live on campus.”

Celia: “Right. I know. I was just wondering if that meant we could maybe look into getting a car. For me, I mean. For school.”

GM: “You don’t need a car.”

Celia: “Yes, Daddy.”

The answer to so many things.

Yes, Daddy.

It feels like it’s going to be a long four years.

Celia I, Prologue I
The First Wish

Thursday afternoon, 17 July 1997

GM: “Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to yoouuu
Happy birthday, dear Celia,
Happy birthday to yoooouuuuu!”

Celia hasn’t been allowed to invite any friends to her party, but it’s still a crowded table between the birthday girl, her parents and grandparents, and all four of her ages one-to-six younger siblings. A modest collection of presents sits around the “starter home’s” somewhat cramped-feeling dining room. Celia’s mom and dad come from affluent families, but they’re barely out of college and have five kids.

Her grandmother’s smile looks humoring with just a touch of strained. If Celia had to guess, the easily tired-out old woman is the reason for no birthday guests. Still, her parents’ eyes are earnest with desire for their daughter to have a good time despite no friends or pinatas, and they feel like they’ve tried to make up for it:

Celia’s dad laughingly dubbed it a “chocolate explosion” after her mom was finished baking, and the name stuck. It’s chocolate. White chocolate cake layers. Chocolate icing lathered with chocolate sauce. Chocolate candy bars of every size and shape, some dark and some white. Chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate chocolate.

There’s so much chocolate that Celia’s mom had seemed genuinely baffled what to do by the time she’d layered on the last piece of candy: “Oh, silly me! How the heck are we supposed to fit on any candles?” She’d seemed ready to give up and just let the kids eat off the excess candy before Celia’s dad swooped in with a magic solution, one that would let them save all the candy for the party—and get an extra helping of chocolate on top.

“Make a wish, baby girl!” Daddy beams over the cake’s adjacent cupcake.

Celia: Celia’s eyes are as round as the empty plate in front of her as her mother brings the cake to the table. When she’d said chocolate, she hadn’t even imagined that this would be the end result. Chocolate explosion indeed. Her little hands can barely constrain themselves from reach out to pluck at the candies and dig into the frosting, and she sits on them—as her parents taught her—to keep the impulses at bay. Ladies don’t grab, Daddy is fond of saying.

She takes in a deep breath, glancing around at all the faces looking expectantly at her, and focuses on her wish. I wish for a pony, I wish for a pony, I wish for a pony. Pony, pony, pony. The word becomes a mantra echoing inside her mind as she leans forward, scrunches her eyes shut tight, and blows.

GM: Celia’s family cheers and applauds as the eight candles blow out.

“So many this year!” her mom exclaims. Her dad starts to carve the cake and distribute pieces. “Oh, that looks just decadent,” laughs Celia’s grandfather.

“Yes, just a little slice for me, please,” asks Grandma.

“I probably shouldn’t tempt fate either,” Grandpa agrees.

“More for the kids, then,” smiles Daddy as he sets a thick slice with several candy bars down in front of Celia.

The chocolate-lathered cake has a spongy yet thick texture made moist by all the chocolate sauce that’s seeped into it. It’s pleasantly contrasted by the harder crunch of the candy bars; Mommy advises Celia to “break off a piece to eat with each bite.” After the kids stuff themselves into a sugar-induced coma and the older adults look ruefully at the still-sizable cake, it’s time for presents.

The modest haul has most of the staples an eight-year-old birthday girl would want. There’s Barbie dolls, some Lisa Frank posters and stickers, and a Talk n’ View Magic Mirror from Beauty in the Beast, but most of the presents go to makeup, nail polish, and a face-painting kit, all in glittery pink pouches and cases with the mermaid logo for Siren Cosmetics. Everyone knows how much time Celia likes to spend in front of Mommy’s vanity.

But no pony.

“Well, sweetie? Did your wish come true?” her dad asks.

Celia: Celia’s face is filled with unbridled glee as she digs into the giant slice of cake that Daddy puts on her plate. It is the one day per year that she indulges as wildly as she wishes, and on this day no one tells her to eat like a lady. Her face is smeared with chocolate, her tummy swollen with dessert, and still she manages to scarf down another piece of candy before the cry of “presents!” breaks into her decadent, sugar-fueled reverie. She manages to remember to wipe her hands before she begins tearing into the assembled pile of gifts, ooh-ing and aah-ing and squealing with each new trinket that she unfolds. Makeup, polish, the wild colors of Lisa Frank, the mirror she’d begged for when she had seen it and subsequently forgotten about. Her eyes are alight with joy.

She is half out of her seat—already planning on plopping down in front of Mommy’s vanity with her new haul—when Daddy’s question stops her short. Her wish. The pony. She peers up at him. The sanctity of birthday wishes is well known in their household. You cannot speak the wish or it will not come true. But she cannot lie to Daddy. Her lower lip trembles at the dilemma.

Slowly, she shakes her head.

GM: Celia’s brothers and sisters are still eating cake and chatting with their grandparents (or simply too young to do much talking), so no one seems to see the shake of her head but Mom and Dad. The child’s honesty seems to take them both aback as the smiles slowly fade from their faces.

“Oh. Well. I’m sorry, sweetie,” Daddy says as he lays a hand on her shoulder. “Sometimes… sometimes we can’t get everything we want.”

He tries to offer a comforting smile, but the look in his eyes is plain. The sense of failure, of having let her down. This is not a life lesson any parent particularly wants to teach during their child’s birthday party.

Mommy brushes Celia’s hair as she offers a similar look of contrition. “Oh, sweetie, we are both so sorry. Do you want some more cake, maybe? We have plenty left.”

Celia: She is old enough to recognize there is something off about the expression on her parent’s faces. Was it her? Should she have lied? She doesn’t like that they’re not smiling, and that it happened after something she said.

She rises, unsteadily, onto the chair. She isn’t supposed to stand on chairs, but today is her birthday, so she gets to make exceptions. She leans in to her dad, her chocolate-smeared lips close to his ear as she whispers,

“Not yet, Daddy. I wished you’d play dress up with me.” Dress up is her favorite game. Mommy plays all the time, but Daddy hasn’t.

GM: Laughter suddenly breaks through on Daddy’s face, all his troubles gone in an instant. Mommy raises her eyebrows and smiles hopefully. Daddy cups an exaggerated hand to whisper it into her ear, and then she breaks out laughing out, but holds a hand to cover her mouth as she does. That’s what ladies do.

“Okay, birthday girl,” Daddy chuckles as he turns back to her. “Just this once, since it’s your birthday.” He smooths back Celia’s hair and kisses her forehead.

“Oh, mister, you don’t know the half of what you’re in for…” Mommy smirks at him.

Daddy starts to reply, then there’s the sound of the doorbell chiming.

“Oh, now who could that be?” asks Mommy.

“I’ll get it,” Daddy answers.

“Don’t think you’re off the hook, bub,” says Mommy, smirk returning.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Daddy laughs as he tussles Celia’s hair, then leaves the room.

Mommy starts to talk about Celia’s dress-up plans before she’s interrupted by a loud, “Max!” from beyond the kitchen. The house isn’t that big. Sound carries. “Oof, c’mere, you! Still in-”

“Jim, what the-”

“Oh, now is that any way to greet your old man? Gimme a hug! Oof! Okay, let’s see the birthday girl!”

“Wait, she’s-”

A man strides into the dining room. He’s tall and lanky, with a full head of silvery-gray hair and a wide grin that looks at home on his face. The wrinkles around his mouth look like he’s grinned a lot over the years, next to her grandparents’ stiffer and straighter ones. He’s dressed in a casual sports coat with the collar of his shirt unbuttoned.

Celia might not notice any of those things, though, next to the companion at his side.


It’s white, dressed in pink and magenta… whatever that stuff ponies wear is called, and tromping through her house at the older man’s side like it has every right to be there.

“Hey, birthday girl! I’m your grandpa!” the man exclaims, squatting down to eye level with Celia and spreading his arms. “Can I get a hug?”

Celia hasn’t seen him before in her life.

Celia: Celia hasn’t seen this man before in her life. She is barely aware of his presence, in fact, next to the shining, shimmering, glittering—

PONY!” She is off the chair so quickly that it totters over in her wake, her tiny feet carrying her across the kitchen to stop just shy of the man now crouching at eye level, expectant, and the pony tossing its head beside him. Her eyes shine as she takes it in, and this man—this bridle carrying hero—is waiting. She does not hesitate. She launches herself into his embrace, her arms flung around his neck, smothering his face in chocolate-stained kisses. She does not care that she has never seen him before; he is the granter of wishes.

“Pony! You brought me a pony!” Her voice is nothing short of a delighted squeal.

GM: The man laughs, squeezes his Celia tight in his arms, and shakes her around, matching the excitable child’s energy with his own as she plants messy chocolate kisses over his clean-shaven face.

“She’s all yours, birthday girl! She needs a name, what do you want to call her?”

Celia: A name? Does that mean..?

“Do I get to keep her?” She stretches out a hand toward the pony.

GM: The pony’s muzzle is soft beneath Celia’s hand. Its eyes are silent and trusting.

“Yep! I said she’s all yours, didn’t I?” beams the man.

“Wait, Jim—we don’t have room to take care of a pony,” Daddy interjects in a flustered voice, but his eyes aren’t on the pony.

“You’ve got some nerve, showing up like this,” growls Grandpa. His face is turning red like someone has lit a stove inside his skull.

“Please, y’all, not in front of the kids,” Mommy entreats, laying her hands over the newcomer’s arm as if to guide him out of the room. He shrugs her off.

“I’ll show up an-”

“Oh my god, are you drunk? I can smell it on your breath!” exclaims Grandma, her expression mortified.

“I’m fine! I wanna see my grandbab—hey!” the newcomer exclaims as Daddy scoops Celia out his embrace.

“Daddy? What’s… going on?” Isabel asks with a frown. Celia’s other siblings don’t quite seem to comprehend what’s happening, but the smiles are fading from their faces.

“Jim, this isn’t a good time-” starts Daddy.

“Stop calling me Jim!” the man exclaims in a hurt voice.

Celia: Any joy Celia has over the pony is cut short by the grown ups. The atmosphere in the room shifts. She doesn’t understand—why is everyone upset? The Wish Bringer is here.

“Daddy?” She looks to him, now in his arms, suddenly off the floor and away from the pony and the man. She reaches for the pony. “But the pony —”

GM: Daddy cups his hand over Celia’s and gently pulls her arm down. “Celia, baby, I’m sorry. We don’t have room for a pony.”

Celia: “But he’s magic. He knew I wanted a pony and he brought it. He can fix Grandma!”

GM: Grandma’s mortified look still hasn’t subsided, but her brow furrows at the child’s words.

“Celia, sweetie-” Mommy starts with a somewhat embarrassed look as she runs a hand along her daughter’s head.

“See? Every girl wants a pony!” interrupts the Wish Bringer. “It’s not a problem, I can keep it at my house, and Celia can come over whenever she w-”

“Get out of here. Right now,” Grandpa growls at him.

“Oh, please,” psshes the Wish Bringer. “Or what? If you were a real man, you wouldn’t have raised my k-”

Grandpa decks the newcomer across his jaw. He falls backwards onto the table, which topples over with a terrific crash. The sauce-lathered cake, true to its explosive name, messily splatters all over the man’s clothes, the floor, and Celia’s birthday presents.

The seated Flores children start loudly crying.

The pony bolts.

Celia: Celia, still in her father’s arms, bursts into tears. Her presents are ruined. She squirms, trying to get down. The pony is going to trample them! Or get out! “Daaaaaaaaaadddyyyy!!” her voice rises in a watery wail.

GM: Daddy squeezes Celia close for a moment, then foists her into Mommy’s arms before interposing himself between the two men as the Wish Granter ambles to his feet. “Oh, look who grew a p-”

“Stop it, both of you!”

“You have the nerve-”

“Help me get the kids!” Mommy frantically exclaims, lowering Celia to the floor but clasping her hand with a grip that assuredly isn’t going to let go. Grandma gathers up the younger children as Mommy grabs Isabel with her other hand and all but yanks the children out of the room. Heated voices, furious exclamations, and the sound of a slamming door from the men follow Celia up the stairs to her bedroom.

It’s anyone’s guess what’s happened to the pony.

This is the worst birthday ever.

Thursday afternoon, 17 July 1997

GM: It’s a little longer before the noises from downstairs are over. Daddy comes upstairs to the bedroom Celia shares with Isabel. He sits down on the bed next to Mommy.

“We’re… we’re so sorry you had to see that, girls,” Mommy says as she pulls Celia onto her lap.

“We’ll get your presents all replaced,” Daddy adds as he pulls Isabel onto his.

There are hugs. There are apologies. There are words of comfort. There are talks about how to behave ‘when you’re really mad.’ There is the promise of another chocolate explosion cake.

The only thing there isn’t are explanations.

Celia: Celia’s eyes are finally dry as Daddy comes into the room, and she listens to what he says, the promise of new cake and presents.

“What about the pony?” she dares to ask.

“Is Grandpa okay?” she tacks on, belatedly.

GM: “Grandpa’s fine, sweetie. He and Gradma went home,” Mommy answers first. She and Daddy trade looks, and then seemingly in lieu of a lecture, Mommy adds, “He’ll be very happy to hear how much you care about him.”

“That’s… good,” says Isabel, the six-year-old still seemingly at a loss how to process this.

Celia: “And the pony?” she presses.

GM: Daddy lays a hand on Celia’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, baby. We just don’t have room for a pony in this house.”

Celia: “He said he could keep it,” Celia protests.

GM: Celia’s parents trade looks for a moment.

“He said he was our grandpa,” says Isabel.

“He’s not,” Daddy quickly answers. “People say… people say things that aren’t true, sometimes.”

Celia: “But who was he? How did he know it was my birthday? Or to bring a pony?”

GM: “He’s someone who…” Daddy starts again, then trails off and looks to his wife.

“He’s someone who means well,” Mommy says after a moment. “But if we invite him back, people will get angry and sad again.”

Celia: “Why?”

GM: That simple question makes Celia’s parents trade looks again.

“You’ll… understand when you’re older,” says Daddy.

“But you don’t want people to get angry and sad, do you?” asks Mommy as she looks between her daughters.

“No…” answers Isabel.

Celia: “But… what about the pony? Will she be okay? I picked out a name.” She looks between her parents, eyes wide, afraid for the pony that bolted from their home. “Where is she going? Does she have a home? Or a mommy? If the man gave her to me does that mean I’m her mommy?” Her lower lip trembles. Tears shine in her eyes.

GM: Mommy hugs Celia close and murmurs assuring things. They caught Sugar Cube before she got too far away. The pony will go to a loving home. Celia would need to have told Sugar Cube she was the pony’s mommy to be Sugar Cube’s mommy.

But it doesn’t escape the newly-eight-year-old that Daddy isn’t saying anything.

And when she steals a look past Mommy’s arms, who’s also holding and saying reassuring things to her sister, she sees that Daddy’s face is buried against his wife’s shoulder.

He’s making faint noises.

That sound like… crying.

Celia: The logic makes sense to Celia’s eight-year-old mind. Of course the pony doesn’t know Celia is her mommy; she wouldn’t have known if Mommy hadn’t told her… right? She doesn’t think too hard on it.

She’s focused instead on Daddy, on the way he buries his face against Mommy the same way she does when she’s upset. Her heart sinks. Does Daddy know this was her secret wish? But she hadn’t said anything. She climbs carefully off of her mother’s lap to displace her sister, cuddling up against Daddy. She hums the song Mommy always sings when they’re sad, the melody soft and lilting.

“Why are you sad, Daddy?” she asks, patting his hand.

GM: Daddy quickly pulls his head away and wipes his eyes.

“It’s nothing, sweetie. Just… had something in my eye. And being so proud of how big you’re getting.” He ruffles her hair.

“Say,” Mommy remarks, “I think someone made a birthday wish to play dress-up, didn’t she?”

“That’s right, she did!” exclaims Daddy. “What should we start with? How about…”

Friday night, 18 July 1997, AM

GM: It’s well after bedtime and lights out that Celia feels something painfully bang into her head. She’d been sleeping. The alarm clock’s flickering red numbers stare up from her pillowside.

Her head really hurts.

“Um… are you awake?” asks Isabel from the other bed.

Celia: “Ow!” Celia is instantly awake, head smarting where it’s been struck by… the alarm clock?

She glares across the room in the dark towards where she knows her sister’s bed is. “What?”

GM: “The lights are on,” says Isabel.

Celia can see out the window that the lights are on downstairs. In the living room.

The alarm clock says it’s 2:32 AM.

“Do you wanna… go listen? To what they’re talking about?”

Celia: Her eyes dart towards the light. There is no hesitation.

“Yes,” she says, slipping from beneath the covers.

“Shhh,” she whispers, though she knows Isabel does not need to be told.

GM: Isabel doesn’t get out of bed.

“Um…” she whispers back.

“I think there’s a monster under my bed…”

Celia: Celia is quiet for a second. Monsters. She wants to jump back into her own bed and pull the blankets up over her head. But Mommy says monsters aren’t real. And if they are real she can’t let her sister face them alone, even if she threw an alarm clock at her head.

“I’ll check.” She takes a step toward the bed. “Where’s the… flashlight?”

GM: Isabel doesn’t know, but Celia is able to find one in the bathroom after a brief search.

The lights are off.

She approaches the bed.

It’s dark and full of space for any monster to hide.

There could be a hundred monsters down there.

A thousand.

Celia: Celia’s heart pounds in her chest as she approaches the bed, flashlight in hand. She imagines all the horrible things that could be hiding under there: the boogeyman, the ugly monster, the swamp monster…

GM: Celia shines the flashlight.

But she sees none.

No monsters down there.

Celia: In the dark, her sister cannot see the way her hands shake, though the light bounces across the floor, and she can probably hear the exhale of relief once the bed has been cleared.

“No monsters,” Celia whispers. She holds out a hand for her sister to grab. “Come on.”

GM: Isabel looks apprehensive for a moment, then takes Celia’s hand, closes her eyes, and jumps down.

No monsters.

The two creep down the hallway and approach the staircase. They descend several steps, kneel down, and press their faces between the balusters. It’s every child’s favorite place to eavesdrop on living room discussions between the grown-ups.

Then Celia realizes why she found no monsters under Isabel’s bed.

They were already here.


He looks like a man, but only in the way that latex knows how to pour into a mold. How to approximate the shape despite its foreign nature. He’s a hair below average height, clean-shaven, and has short, neatly combed black hair. He’s dressed in a black turtleneck shirt and any navy slacks. He looks as if he could be the host for a gallery opening or wine tasting event… were it not for his eyes. They are the sea-gray color of troubled skies and distant storm clouds, harbingers of a coming doom. They are as frigid as the Arctic’s blackest depths and as remorseless as any shark’s. Even without staring at Celia, those awful eyes seem to pierce through to the child’s very soul. Against that dead stare, the rest of him stands seemingly revealed. There’s the too-cold, too-white skin like a porcelain doll’s. There’s the utter stillness, the statue-like way he never blinks, never smiles, never makes any of those little movements that people do. There’s how the very air around him feels colder, how Celia can already feel goosebumps breaking out along her flesh as her teeth chatter. And she knows, in that way only children can know, whose imaginations can freely roam nightmare vistas that grown-ups explain away as ‘impossible’:

This is the monster missing from under Isabel’s bed.

And Daddy is trapped in the room with it.

Celia: Celia’s mind freezes along with the rest of her body. The man—monster—is not looking her way, but she knows that he knows she is there. She and Isabel, her little sister, the one she said she would protect from the monsters. Even at a freshly-turned eight Celia knows that it is her job, as the eldest, to keep her sister safe. Not only her sister, but all her three other baby siblings. And Mommy.

A fist clenches in her gut. Where is Mommy?

She reaches out a surprisingly steady hand to her sister, leaning in close to whisper in her ear.

“Go back to bed. Get under the blankets. Keep quiet.

Monsters can’t get you under the blankets, everyone knows that.

GM: Isabel trembles in place for a moment, seemingly paralyzed with fear. Celia wonders if she’s even heard the whisper until her sister all but bolts back to their bedroom.

Yet if the monster hears the child’s panicked footfalls, it gives no sign. It’s talking with Daddy in the living room. They’re sitting down on the couches like this is all perfectly normal. Daddy seems to be doing most of the talking, because Celia doesn’t ever see the monster’s so-pale lips move. His expression is… a lot of things.

But mostly, it looks like when he was crying against Mommy.

Mommy is nowhere to be seen.

Celia: Celia waits until she hears the faint click of the bedroom door down the hall to ease her way down another step, closer to the living room. She turns her head to press the side of her skull against the empty space between the balusters, as if that simple motion will make their words clear. The flashlight is still clutched in her hand. Monsters hate light. As long as she has it, she is safe.

GM: Daddy and the monster continue talking. Their words are an indistinct murmur, but Celia can read their faces. The monster’s doesn’t change. It hurts her head to look at. It’s scary to look at. Easier to look at Daddy’s.

Daddy’s face seems to set. Grow more resolved. Grow, somehow… agreeable. In fact, he doesn’t look like he’s afraid of the monster, anymore.

Is that worse than seeing him cry?

Celia: Terror kept her still, but loyalty moves her feet. Step by step she creeps down the stairs until she is at the bottom of the staircase, crouching low—almost bent double—to avoid notice. She holds her breath as she stops near the open doorway, pressing herself against the wall that leads inside. She is still for just a moment, long enough to judge if she has been heard, before she peeks around the corner.

GM: Adults seem tall to any child. But right now, when Celia is doing her utmost to avoid being seen, to crouch as low as she can to all but swim against floor, the two seem as giants.

But she can hear them.

She can hear Daddy.

She hears him say to the monster, “It’s a deal.”

And as her every instinct and common screams for him not to, Celia sees Daddy reach out… and touch the monster.

He shakes its hand.

He stands to do it.

So does the monster.

It looks past his shoulder.

Its gaze fixes straight on Celia.

Celia: The breath whooshes from her lungs. She has half a mind to move back behind the wall, but she is caught by his gaze, rooted to the spot. Her mouth pops open.

GM: As the child gapes, all her heat, all her warmth, all her life suddenly seems to leech out through her open mouth. She’s so cold. Howling winds seem to shriek in her ears as her head swims and her vision tunnels, like she’s plummeting into ice water. She’s sinking. Drowning. She thinks she hears Daddy screaming, but she can barely hear. Barely see. Except for one detail:

The monster getting closer.

Friday morning, 18 July 1997

GM: Celia’s in her bed. It’s bright and sunny out, and Mommy and Daddy are there. They laugh at “what a sleepyhead” she is, and cheerfully proclaim how breakfast today will be blueberry pancakes, and how they’ll have a “second birthday” later in the afternoon with replacement presents and cake for the birthday girl. Or would she like to invite her friends and have the party a few days later, so there’s time for invitations to go out?

Celia: Blueberry pancakes? And cake? Two days in a row? The prior night’s events fade in the light of day, banished by the laughter in her father’s eyes and the promise of an extra cake. A glance at the alarm clock shows that it has been reset on the stand next to Isabel’s bed. Or… had it never left?

She is faced with a dilemma: cake today, or extra presents if she invites her friends.

“…can we have pony rides?”

GM: “Of course, sweetie!” proclaims Daddy, hugging her close with Mommy.

“You can have absolutely everything you want.”

Saturday morning, 23 August 1997

GM: As the months pass, Celia does get everything, and a good deal more. The family moves out of their rental home to a nicer place in a nice neighborhood. A really nice neighborhood. It’s a gated community called Audubon Place. The barbed wire-tipped concrete walls, masked guards, and leashed attack dogs might be frightening for the child, but she’s safe from behind the car window and their new home is a dream:

It’s a stately Queen Anne home with beautifully landscaped grounds that include lush gardens with organically grown citrus trees and grapes, a heated inground pool lined with Italian tile, and pretty slate patio. There’s seven bedrooms, so Celia and her siblings all get a room of their own now: they don’t have to share anymore. There’s even a dedicated game and crafts room, and a big deck where the whole family can eat dinner outdoors from high in the sky when it’s nice weather out. Mommy absolutely loves the place and plans to convert one of the bedrooms into a dance studio.

There’s also a familiar face waiting outside.

They have room at this place, so Sugar Cube is Celia’s now, if she feels she’s up to the responsibility of taking care of a pony. Being an animal’s mommy is a serious commitment.

There are also some new rules, like no more TV. Daddy thinks it’s better if the kids play outside and “practice their hands and brains” instead of watching cartoons. Mommy agrees. It’s better for kids to be active.

Everything is going to be better now.

Sunday afternoon, 9 September 2001

GM: Celia is 12. Daddy is away a lot: his job at the state legislature takes up a lot of time. Mom always seems to be so grateful when he’s home. Mom says she’s getting on in her years: even though she’s 29, she tells the Flores girls during dance practice that “Ballet is a young woman’s game” and she’s at the age she needs to start planning for her retirement. It puts so much strain on dancers’ bodies. There’s a few times Celia thinks she’s heard her mom puking from the bathroom. She’s so proud of Celia, though: dancing doesn’t come easily to her daughter, who Isabel calls a “robot dancer.” But she puts her everything into the lessons, until her toes are black and blue and falling apart. Even if she’s a little stiff, Mom couldn’t be happier. The family has so much to be happy about.

They have some downs as well as ups, like any family. There’s that time Celia finds some blood on the staircase. Isabel just gives her a funny look when she brings it up, screams, “YOU’RE A LIAR!” and slams the door to her room. They don’t talk for several days.

But God has provided for them. They have much to be thankful for in their prayers at dinner. It’s not long after Celia has her first period that her father sits down with her and gently but firmly explains how he’s taking away her makeup.

“You’re getting to be a young woman now, sweetie. Boys can get ideas. I want you to be safe.”

Celia: “But, wait, all of it? Even my concealer? Foundation? Dad! That’s not fair! Why is it my fault if some stupid boys have ideas? You’re not taking things away from Isabel!”

It doesn’t make any sense to her. With her period came the bad skin; she needs the makeup now, or people are going to see.

GM: “Celia, if we do things half-baked, a half-baked result is exactly what we get,” her dad explains.

He’s bald now. There was something he didn’t like about his hair (Celia isn’t sure exactly what), so he decided to shave it all off. It definitely makes the well-muscled former quarterback look more imposing.

“We don’t want half-baked, in anything. All in or all out.”

“But you’re right it’s important to be fair. Isabel is going to give up those things too.”

Celia: “Then I want a dermtol… a skin doctor.” She stumbles over the word and crosses her arms.

GM: Her dad looks at her for a moment, then lays a hand on her shoulder.

“Sweetie, I want you to realize… you’ll always be beautiful to me just they way you are. You don’t need to cover yourself up.”

“Your husband will feel the same way. He will see and love you for who you are.”

Celia: “Easy for you to say. You’re not the one with acne all over your face!” She points at the red, splotchy marks on her cheeks and jawline, still visible despite the concealer.

GM: Her dad looks at her for a moment, then pulls a tissue out of the box on the bedside table and starts to wipe the concealer off.

Celia: “What are you—stop it!” She jerks away from him, shoving at his hands. “You can’t do this to me! I’m telling Mom.”

GM: Her dad plants his strong hands around her shoulders and gently but firmly seats her back into place on the bed. “Sweetie, sit still.”

The tissue resumes steadily wiping away the concealer.

Her zits are huge.

Celia: Celia tucks her chin against her neck, as if that will hide the horrible marks on her skin.

“See? I can’t not have makeup. That’s just… that’s against the Constitution. Cruel and unusual punishment.” She says it with enough gusto it sounds as if she might believe it herself.

GM: Her dad lifts her chin up to wipe away what’s left.

He gets up, then sweeps away all of her bottles and brushes and cases into a trash bag. There’s nothing left of her once-sizable cosmetics collection. Even concealer.

He then kisses her forehead.

“I love you just the way you are, Celia.”

Celia: She makes an effort to hide the concealer before he can grab it, but he is faster than her, or knows her tricks, and it, too, is swept away. Tears roll down her cheeks, and her father ignores her pleas.

“I hate you!” she screams at him, red-eyed and snotty.

GM: Her dad isn’t faster, but he is stronger. He calmly pries it out of her grasp and drops it into the trash bag too with an audible tiny thump.

“You’re beautiful, sweetie. You always will be.”

Celia: “Get out, get out, get out!” She shoves him toward the door so she can at least have the satisfaction of slamming it in his face.

GM: That satisfaction is denied too. Her much larger dad doesn’t budge at the 12-year-old’s shoving, but he does frown. There’s an edge to his voice as he says,

“Celia, you need to apologize for that. Right now.”

Celia: She doubles down instead.

“Get out of my room!”

GM: “Okay, if that’s the way you want to be.”

He opens her dresser, pulls out one of her favorite tops, and drops it into the trash bag too.

Celia: “No! What are you—MOOOOMMM!” Her voice cracks. She starts toward the door herself to find a sane adult.

GM: Her dad takes her by the shoulders, less gently this time, and firmly sits her back down on the bed. He pulls out another favorite top from her dresser and drops it into the trash too.

“This will stop when you apologize for your behavior, Celia.”

Celia: “You can’t do that!”

She twists and squirms beneath his grasp, but she is still a child. She watches him grab the pink sparkly top from the dresser—the one she wears at every opportunity—and bolts toward it. “That’s mine!” she yells, yanking at the bag.

GM: Her dad yanks her hands away, then pulls out that white floral-patterned sundress she likes and drops it into the trash bag after the sparkly top. There’s anger in his eyes now.

“Ladies don’t behave this way. Last warning.”

Celia: “Or what?” the words hiss out from between her teeth. “You’ll burn my wardrobe? Make me go to school naked? I bet the boys would get all sorts of ideas then!”

GM: Celia’s dad drops the bag, grabs her hand, then sits back down on the bed and pulls her over his knee. He pulls up her dress, then delivers a sharp spank to her rear with a painfully loud smack.

There’s footsteps, then Celia’s mom pokes her head through the door.

“Honey, what’s—”

Her expression freezes.

“Go back to what you were doing,” Celia’s dad calmly says.

Celia: Sprawled over her father’s lap, bottom already red, with tears streaming down her face in humiliation and pain and rage, Celia kicks her feet ineffectually and reaches for her mom, sobbing.

GM: Her mom kneels to the floor and reaches out, taking Celia’s hands in hers. She starts to say something, then catches her husband’s eye.

“I’ll just hold her hands,” she hastily amends. “That’s all.”


Celia’s dad doesn’t say anything, then brings his palm down hard on her throbbing rear with another sharp smack.

“This will stop when you apologize for your behavior,” he repeats.

Celia: She hates them both. She tells them as much as her father brings his hand down upon her again, screaming wordless fury. Three, four, five times, she hisses and spits and screams in her mother’s face. There’s no relent, though, not until her rage abates, not until she lies still when her father’s hand strikes her again, her throat as raw and hoarse as her bottom.

The apology he’s waiting for is whispered, her voice thick with tears, when he pauses between spankings.

GM: “That’s better,” her dad says.

He pulls her dress back over her bottom and sits her down.

“I accept your apology, sweetie.”

He gives her a hug, then kisses her head.

“I love you. You’ll always be beautiful to me.”

He gathers up the trash bag and walks out of her room.

Her mother, still seated on the bed, looks at Celia with a mortified expression. Her nose is still wet with saliva. She reaches for her daughter’s hands, then seems to reconsider and sets hers down on her lap.

“I’m sorry, Celia. I am so, so sorry.”

Celia: Celia can’t muster the strength to even glare at her mother.

“You just let him.”

Maybe the lack of righteous anger is worse. Her voice is flat. Her eyes are on the floor.

GM: “I’m sorry. It… it would have just made things worse for you, if…”

With her eyes on the floor, Celia cannot say what her mother’s face looks like. There’s just a silent pause before the woman’s voice resumes,

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

She feels her mother’s hand hesitantly reach out to take hers.

Celia: “Why?” She doesn’t pull away, though she doesn’t make it easy on the woman. She is stiff.

GM: Celia’s mom squeezes her hand and scoots closer to her on the bed.

“When your dad’s mind is made up, sweetie, it’s…”

She trails off for a moment, then asks, “What happened here? What was this about?”

Celia: “It’s what?”

She is distracted, though, by the chance to mourn her makeup.

“He said I can’t have makeup anymore. Because boys will look at me funny. He took it. He took all of it. Even my concealer. I have to go to school like this now. Everyone is going to see! Everyone is going to laugh at me! It’s not my fault, it’s not fair.” She wipes at her eyes.

GM: Celia’s mom wraps an arm around her daughter and hugs her against her shoulder.

“Okay. Okay. You can have some of my concealer, as much as you want. Just… be sure you use it every day, so your dad can’t tell the difference. And that you store it someplace out of the way, too. Your bathroom cabinet, maybe.”

Celia: Celia sniffs, wiping at her nose to prevent it from staining her mother’s shirt.

“Okay.” She is placated momentarily by the offering, but it only goes so far. “Did his dad used to hit him? Is that why he doesn’t come around?”

She hasn’t forgotten the events of the Worst Birthday Ever, or the magical reappearance of Sugar Cube months later.

GM: Celia’s mom pulls out some more tissues to wipe her daughter’s nose.

“The history there is… complicated, sweetie. And very painful for a lot of people.”

“Your dad is under a lot of pressure right now, with the elections looming. He was very young to get elected to state office. There are a lot of older people who’d like to take his job.”

“It’s… I’ll be honest, it’s possible he could lose that. Then I don’t know where we’ll be. If we’re not able to afford the mortgage payments, we could lose the house. This is a very expensive house.”

“Your dad wants to provide for us. There’s nothing that would make him feel like more of a failure than not being able to.”

Celia: “What does that have to do with another grandfather?”

GM: Her mom pauses. “Maybe it doesn’t, sweetie. It’s just… why he got so upset, right now.”

Celia: “…because of something that has nothing to do with me?” Celia scoffs.

GM: Celia’s mother hugs her closer. “I know. It isn’t fair.”

“But things will get better. I promise. Your dad still loves us very much.”

Celia: “I don’t love him. He took my sparkle shirt.”

GM: “I think I remember the place we picked that up from,” her mom says thoughtfully. “I’ll see if I can get you another one for Christmas.”

She winks. “Just don’t tell Santa you’ve had a peek inside his sack, all right?”

Celia: Celia drags two fingers across her lips, twists her hand, and throws away the imaginary key.

GM: Her mom hugs her again.

“I love you, sweetie. Things will get better.”

“I promise.”

Saturday night, 15 November 2003, PM

GM: Celia’s mom comes through with the concealer and sparkly top, which her dad doesn’t seem to mind after the months-long period without. He also wins re-election. Life is good in the Flores household. Celia’s dad doesn’t spank her again and loves her very much too.

She attends a purity ball with him when she’s 13, where she pledges to remain a virgin until marriage. He decides it’s better if she and Isabel don’t attend McGehee’s school dances: they’re the only co-educational part of the all-girls school. Even not being allowed to wear any makeup besides concealer isn’t that bad. Lots of girls don’t even bother to put on makeup without any boys on campus.

Celia is 14 when another very important election comes up: Senate district 9. Her dad campaigns fiercely and is often away with her mom on the campaign trail (such as it is in the 11-mile or so long district). It’s neat, being on her own, although Celia’s dad is so busy come the campaign’s final days that the Flores children all spend multi-day sleepovers at friends’ houses. There can be absolutely no distractions.

The efforts pay off on election night as the results stream in. Representative Maxen Flores is now Senator Maxen Flores.

Celia doesn’t think her dad is even home on the big day. She’s gone home, to filch some booze for a friend’s party. Their parents are also out of town. Celia’s dad has a private stash but she’s not seen him touch alcohol in years. She doubts he’ll notice it’s missing.

It’s as she’s making her way through the unlit house’s darkened hallways (somehow, turning on the lights feels like it would alert her parents) that she hears the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. Coming from upstairs.

Celia: The bottles clink together in her hands as she moves toward the door. She is ready to dip outside and make a run for it when the sounds echo down the stairs. She stops. No one is supposed to be home. Her parents are out of town. Her siblings are with friends.

Are we being robbed? What should she do? Call the police? She glances toward the kitchen. But if she calls the police her parents will know she was here. Maybe it’s one of her siblings…?

She sets down the bottles and grabs the first weapon-esque thing she can find, an umbrella, before she moves up the stairs as quietly as she can.

GM: There’s an abrupt crash and the sound of something hitting the ground. Voices. Furious. Shrill. Slurred. It’s enough noise that Celia doubts anyone hears her. She ascends the staircase, and sees that the lights are on from the third floor. Mom always says not to waste electricity.


It’s her parents. Celia can see their outlines through the gloom. Her dad grabs her mom by the hair and slams her face-first into the one of the mounted family pictures. The frame hits the floor with a sharp thump as glass tinkles and her mom hits the ground with another thud. She babbles incoherently as she crawls backwards with raised hands.

“Ple, ple-ple-plea, I did, I-I, di-”


Celia: Celia creeps quietly up the stairs, but halfway up, after the shout, she abandons that. Whoever it is cannot hear her. She recognizes her father’s voice, and then their silhouettes. Her mother on the floor, pleading. Her father, angry. The same anger she has seen him in before. She watches him smash her mother’s face into the photo and lets loose the breath she had been holding.


She is frozen, makeshift weapon in her hand.

GM: Her dad’s open hand comes down, knocking her mother’s head all the floor with another sharp smack. She gives a strangled cry and half-scampers, half-crawls away on all fours. There’s blood leaking from her nose.

Celia’s dad yanks her up by her hair, making her cry out again, then seizes her shoulders, flips her around, and slugs her in the face with a closed fist. Blood flies off his knuckles amidst a hideous crunch.


Celia: The sound of her mother’s skull hitting the floor propels her forward. She starts up the stairs, rage fueling her steps. She is, after all, her father’s daughter.


GM: Her dad’s head whips to the side. If he’s puzzled to see her there, it’s only for a second. Spattered blood droplets frame hate-twisted face as he thrusts out a pointed finger at her and bellows,


Celia: Celia keeps coming. The umbrella feels like bringing a knife to a gun fight, but its weight is steady in her hand.

“Let go of her.”

GM: “I said—GO TO YOUR ROOM!” her dad bellows. He grabs Celia’s mother back off the floor as she screams and flails. Blood, snot, and tears run down her cut face as he tosses her forward like an overlarge football, down the flight of stairs. Her limbs madly flail as she twists, turns, screams, and crashes into Celia, knocking her daughter off her feet. Each step is like a bare-bottom spank as it smacks into Celia, against her stomach, her back, her breasts, her arms, everywhere. She comes to in a heap at the bottom of the staircase as she hears her father’s footsteps furiously tramping down.

Celia: Heck, heck, heck. Even inside their minds, ladies don’t swear. Celia’s body is banged up and bruised and hurting by the time she collapses in a pile at the bottom of the stairs, her mother on top of her. She should have called the police. She struggles to rise, trying to drag her mother up with her.

“Come on, Mom, get up.”

GM: Celia doesn’t have to tug very hard before the long-time ballerina nimbly springs to both feet with a grace that the younger Flores never quite had. Her eyes are wide with terror as she shoves Celia away, screaming, “GO! GO! GOGOGO!”

Celia: Celia tugs at her mother’s hand, urging her toward the stairs. “Come on!”


Celia’s mom is cut off as her dad jumps the last of the stairs, tackling his wife to the floor like a rival quarterback in a football game. It’s not even a contest between the mass and momentum. Celia’s cheek screams as he backhands her away, then his fist comes down with another bloody crunch as he screams at the pinned and impotently flailing woman,


Celia: Celia bolts for the stairs, her intention to find the phone and call the police. She concocts the story in her head as she goes, black man, attacking my mom, please help.

GM: Celia doesn’t see what happens next. But she hears it. The crunches. The smacks of impact. The shattering glass and furniture. Her mother’s high-pitched screams amidst her father’s ranting and raving.

“911, wha’ is ya emergency?” calmly asks the Cajun-accented dispatcher.

Celia: “Home invasion,” she whispers into the phone, “there’s a man inside my house attacking my mom, I can hear her screaming, please help, I’m only 14, he knows I’m here, he’s coming for me next.” She gives the address, 3 Audubon Place. “Please hurry, hurry, he’s going to kill her.”

GM: “Off’cers will be on deir way righ’ over, ma’am,” answers the dispatcher. “May I ax who I’m speakin’ to?”

Celia: “Isabel Flores. Please tell them to hurry.” She doesn’t know why she lies, only that she does.

GM: “Okay, Isabel, dey’re on deir way ovah, soon as dey can be. I need you ta stay on da line an’ stay calm fo’ me, okay? Can dey get into da house? Is da door locked? Is…”

The dispatcher stays with her the whole time. His name is Billy Baker. He has lots of questions. Can she describe the suspect? Are weapons involved? Where in the house is the violence taking place? Can she unlock the front door? Can she go over to a neighbor’s house?

Their neighbor at 2 Audubon Place is Mr. McGregor. He’s the president of Tulane University.

All the while, Celia can hear the noises from upstairs.

They don’t stop.

Celia: Celia is adamant that she will not leave her mother alone. She says the door is unlocked, but she hesitates on describing the attacker. “I didn’t see…” she says. “Are they close?” She edges toward the stairs, as if to look up at them.

GM: Ominously, they no longer are. Celia can see some more smashed pictures and kocked-over furniture.

And she can still hear.

Billy Baker asks Celia if she’s been hurt. He repeats that she needs to get out of there. She’s already helped her mother, but she will make it harder for the police to if she’s also injured by the attacker.

Celia: “What do you mean they’re not close?” Celia demands. “I am a senator’s daughter, you send someone right now!”

GM: “Dey’re on deir way ovah, Isabel, but we cin nevah respon’ to dese calls as fas’ as we like. You cin help us an’ ya mama mos’ by goin’ to ya neighbor’s, all righ’?”

Celia: “It’s fine,” Celia says, voice suddenly calm. “I know where my daddy keeps his guns.”

GM: The dispatcher immediately tries to talk Celia out of it. He says responders will be here soon, very soon, the cops work together with Blackwatch, which provides the neighborhood security—she will put herself and her mother in danger by getting involved!

Celia: Celia hangs up.

GM: Proper gun safety is to keep the gun and ammunition in separate parts of the house under lock and key. However, Maxen Flores wants to be able to respond to a home invasion himself. He has a variety of firearms from pistols to shotguns stored in a variety of locations. There’s a handgun and ammunition stored in separate boxes in the master bedroom.

The ammunition is in a gun safe, but she remembers the combination.

Celia: A gun. Celia hadn’t even considered it an option until she said it out loud, but now her feet take her towards the stairs, where she looks up to see what is going on between her parents, and to find out where they are. Will her dad see her if she ascends? Should she run to her neighbor’s, as suggested? Why aren’t the cops coming?

GM: Celia creeps up the stairs. She does not see her parents down the hallway that leads to the master bedroom.

But she can hear the noises.

From Isabel’s.


Celia doesn’t know what that next noise is. She barely hears it under the wet, raggedy p-p-pleases and beggings, or the weak thump of hands smacking against floor.

It’s only there for a second. A meaty, grisly tearing—and then her mother’s screams rise to a fevered, throat-bleeding pitch.

Celia: Hatred hardens her heart. Her father is the monster. She runs down the hall to the master bedroom, dialing in the combination.

GM: Every second feels like an eternity as she unlocks the under-the-bed safe and pulls out its prize. The M1911 pistol is heavy and brutal-looking, all the more so in the 14-year-old’s small hands. The .45 caliber rounds take equally tortuously long to remove from their case and load into the weapon. Celia was never much interested in learning how to shoot, nor was her dad much interested in teaching her (her brothers were another matter), but all she has to do is point and pull, right?

Celia: Point and pull. She repeats the words to herself as she trudges back down the hall toward her sister’s bedroom, straining to hear the sounds of her parents over the hammering of her heart.

GM: Celia’s mom isn’t screaming anymore. She’s motionless. A limp hand is splayed out over the floor, over a pool of red. Her dad is kneeling over her. Celia can’t see exactly what’s happening, with the lights off, but she smells it. The overpowering coppery odor of blood.

But most of all, she hears it.

The grisly scrape of the hacksaw sawing back and forth through the ballerina’s leg.

Celia: Cold fury shoots through her at the sight of her mother’s body. She raises the handgun, the barrel pointed straight at her father.

“Get off of her.” Her voice cracks; she is young yet, and whatever thought she had of appearing cold and intimidating is possibly just a fantasy. But she has a gun. And he has… a saw. Guns beat saws. Right?

GM: The figure’s outline turns around.

Celia can’t see his face. Just his looming, shadow-drenched, so-wide physique. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear it was a monster crawled out from under the bed.

Then, suddenly, there’s a low chuckle from the darkness.

“Celia, sweetie,” sounds her father’s calm and affectionate voice, “what are you going to do? Shoot me?”

There’s another chuckle.

“Put the gun down. You could hurt yourself with that thing.”

Celia: She takes a step backward, but doesn’t lower the gun despite the ache in her arms. It’s harder than it looks to keep it steady.

“You’re killing her.”

GM: The darkness laughs. It shakes its head.

“Your mom’s fine. You’re imagining things.”

“I love your mom very, very much. Just like I love you very, very much.”

Celia: “I’m not imagining things. I saw you.”

GM: “Oh? What’d you see, baby?” her father’s voice asks indulgently. “Are you sure it was me? Are you sure you didn’t just dream it?”

“It’s very late, baby girl. It’s past your bedtime.”

“It’s okay, though.”

The voice from the darkness is calm. Warm. Serene.

“It’s all okay.”

She sees the dark figure’s arms spread wide.

“Can your old man get a hug?”

Celia: “But…”

She can smell the blood. She saw him. She did.

She takes another step backwards.


GM: “I love you, Celia. You’re my special baby girl.”

The darkness shifts. The shape rises from the floor. It’s tall. So tall.

“You make your mom so proud. She can tell how much you put into those dance lessons.”

“You try and try and try. You make her so proud. You make me so proud.”

“We love you, so very very much.”

Celia: “I’m…”

She stumbles backwards, away from it. This is wrong.

“I’m gonna… sleep.”

She lands on what he said earlier, past her bedtime.

“I’m gonna go to bed.”

GM: “That’s right, Celia. That’s just right.”

The shadows advance towards her.

“You’ll feel better in the morning.”

“I’ll tuck you in.”

Celia: She matches it, step for step.

“I have to pee,” she says suddenly, bolting for the bathroom. Get inside. Lock the door.

GM: “Oh, Celia…”

Lovingly strong arms encircle her. Cradle her.

Hold her fast.

“You’re my special little girl.”

“Can Daddy have a kiss?”

Celia: “N-no. I have to, I have to pee.”

She clings to that idea as steadfastly as she clings to the gun in her hand, as if it will protect her, as if he will believe her and let her go.

GM: “You don’t need to pee, sweetie. You’re just fine.”

“Your mom’s just fine.”

She feels large hands closing around the gun.

“We’re all just fine.”

Celia: “I do,” she insists, “please, and then we can… tuck in…”

She squirms, clutching the gun all the tighter. Anything to buy time.

“Daddy, please let go.”

GM: The lights are dead. It’s just her and Daddy, Daddy whose face she still can’t see, floating alone in the darkness. She doesn’t smell any blood. She doesn’t hear any noises-

“-or hear any screams. It’s all in your head, sweetie. All in your head.”

He hugs her close and casually pulls the gun away.

“Can I have a kiss? Pretty please?”

Celia: “I…”

What? Everything was… in her head. The things she had seen. The fighting. The blood. She twists, looking past him, but there is nothing to see in the dark hall. Just her dad, his arms around her, holding her close. Her hands are empty, the weight of the gun gone. Her fingers close around his arm instead, clinging. How had she gotten so confused? Had she been… drinking?

“Dad? I was… can you tuck me in?”

Her voice is small. Adrenaline fades from her body, leaving in its wake the crash.

GM: “Of course, sweetie. Anything for my little princess.”

He guides her to bed. He fluffs her pillow and tucks the blankets up to her chin.

Then he leans in to kiss her goodnight.

“Goodnight, baby girl.”

Celia: A cold lump settles into her stomach. It’s him. She knew she hadn’t imagined him. He’s real. He’s real and he’s here and he’s… he’s…

That lump is in her throat now, she can’t talk around it, she can’t scream, she can’t even think. She’s in a house with a monster. She is too old to believe the nonsense about being safe under the covers, but she wants to yank them over her head. As if the thin cotton will protect her.

Where’s my mom and dad, she wants to ask. Is she supposed to pretend she doesn’t know that this is wrong? That she doesn’t recognize him? Maybe, if she doesn’t look…

She closes her eyes.

“G-goodnight,” she squeaks.

Celia Logs Index


Story Title Chapters Page Count Date at story start Date at story end
I The Wish’s Price 17 594 p July 17, 1997 Apr. 2, 2009
II Star-Crossed Love 8 285 p Apr. 8, 2009 July 26, 2012
III Heart’s Arrow 15 532 p Mar. 4, 2016 Mar. 10, 2016
IV Web of Lies 20 592 p Mar. 10, 2016 Mar. 13, 2016
V Truth Comes Out 23 837 p Mar. 13, 2016 Mar. 18, 2016
VI Two Steps From Ruin 20 626 p Mar. 18, 2016 Mar. 21, 2016
VII Liar’s Harvest 19 601 p Mar. 21, 2016 Mar. 23, 2016
VIII Feast of Ashes TBD 738+ p Mar. 24, 2016 TBD

I: The Wish’s Price

Celia wished for a pony. Now her father beats her, belittles her, and controls every aspect of her life. She’s just as resigned to it as her mother… until she meets a boy who wants to help them escape. He’s kind, brave, and everything she could wish for.

But Celia knows how wishes turn out. Against her father and his friend in the shadows, love and courage may not be enough. Saving her family may take another wish… with an equally terrible price.

Date at chapter start
Page count
Prologue I The First Wish Celia celebrates the worst birthday ever. July 17, 1997 26 p
Prologue II Blueberry Pancakes Celia learns to pretend after her mother’s hospitalization. Nov. 16, 2003 27 p
Chapter I College Romance Celia meets a boy and takes her first step outside her father’s control. June 24, 2008 27 p
Chapter II The Worst Dinner Celia tries to introduce her new boyfriend to her dysfunctional family.
Emmett submits to his latest indignity as a prostitute.
Nov. 10, 2008 36 p
Chapter III Good Counsel Celia speaks to a judge and presses her mother to regain custody of her siblings. Nov. 24, 2008 26 p
Chapter IV Paul’s Whore Celia trades her dignity to financially provide for her mother.
Emmett fans a spark of rebellion.
Nov. 26, 2008 29 p
Chapter V Two Fathers Celia meets her boyfriend’s family and her biological father. Dec. 10, 2008 25 p
Chapter VI Ron’s Check Celia finds some unexpected financial help. Dec. 16, 2008 35 p
Chapter VII Celia’s Punishment Celia dares to challenge her father. Dec. 18, 2008 34 p
Chapter VIII The Dropped Gun Caroline helps her father clean up a mess.
Celia works to extricate her family from their father’s grasp.
Emmett makes a helpful introduction.
Mar. 31, 2009 38 p
Chapter IX Happy Noises Celia looks for love in all the wrong places.
Emmett tries to do the right thing without it backfiring.
Mar. 31, 2009 41 p
Chapter X New Friends Celia tries to keep her family safe from an abuser.
Emmett tries to give some good advice for once.
Emil cultivates an investment.
Apr. 1, 2009 30 p
Chapter XI Emily’s Rock Bottom Celia chooses between a mother and friend in need.
Emmett plans to take down a bastard in need of taking down.
Apr. 1, 2009 32 p
Chapter XII The Second Wish Celia makes a devil’s bargain.
Emmett finds no good deed goes unpunished.
Apr. 1, 2009 35 p
Chapter XIII Cruel Mercies Celia watches a loved one pay the price for a fateful choice.
Emil eavesdrops upon a politician’s dirty laundry.
Emmett tries to offer what comfort he can.
Apr. 2, 2009 33 p
Chapter XIV Friend in the Shadows Celia comes face to face with the monster under the bed. Apr. 2, 2009 18 p
Chapter XV Losing Either Way Celia decides between fortune and family. Apr. 2, 2009 35 p
Chapter XVI His Forever Celia confronts her sire. Apr. 3, 2009 37 p
Chapter XVII Hard Farewells
Celia reaches a bitter accord.
Emmett tries to just go home.
Apr. 2, 2009 30 p

II: Star-Crossed Love

Celia wanted to save her family from a monster. Now she’s a monster too, drinks human blood, and lies to her family every night. Maybe she can live with that. Then she discovers someone real among her kind and dares to hope. Can the Damned know love?

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Life Among the Damned Celia settles in to her existence as one of the Kindred. Apr. 8, 2009 26 p
Chapter II Roderick & Roxanne Celia runs into some unexpected reminders from her old life. Aug. 29, 2010 25 p
Chapter III Silent Night Celia prepares for a child’s birth and celebrates a cheerless Christmas. Jan. 2, 2010 16 p
Chapter IV Midnight Celia clashes with her sire, her lover, and an old abuser. Jan. 1, 2010 28+ p
Chapter V The Dollhouse Celia breaks a defiant soul and makes a new ally. Apr. 6, 2010 96 p
Chapter VI Old Times’ Sake Celia tries to rekindle an old flame. July 20, 2012 32 p
Chapter VII Rants & Reforms Celia deliberates how to build a better world with her lover and grandsire. July 20, 2012 25 p
Chapter VIII Old Infidelities Celia confesses to a past betrayal. July 26, 2012 37 p

II ½: Interlude

Stories between stories.

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Dr. Dicentra Celia takes an auspicious medical client under her newest alias. Sep. 2, 2015 36 p
Chapter II Rose by Another Flores Celia seeks out a faerie. Dec. 7, 2015 39 p
Chapter III The Archon Celia plies her charms upon a potential new patron.
Jon tests a promising neonate.
Feb. 13, 2016 16 p
Chapter IV The Cleaning Woman Celia finds a new lover. Mar. 1, 2016 34 p

III: Heart’s Arrow

Antoine Savoy, Lord of the French Quarter, has a mission for Celia: get a former lover to betray his sire and join the Bourbons. All she needs to do first is lure him back into her arms… and Savoy has just the right leverage, to make him forget about all those times she lied.

Celia wants to do right by him. He’s still hurt by what she did. But she wants him back more than anything. Can she win back his heart without hurting him again?

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Obedience Lessons Celia reminds her servants of their place. Mar. 4, 2016 32 p
Chapter II Roofied Dinners Celia drinks from the wrong vessel before a poorly-timed family dinner. Mar. 6, 2016 28 p
Chapter III The Sewer Rats Celia takes up the Nosferatu on a dare. Mar. 6, 2016 19 p
Chapter IV Family Troubles Celia tries to smooth things over with her mortal family. Mar. 7, 2016 36 p
Chapter V The Hunter Hunted Celia wakes up kidnapped. Mar. 8, 2016 23 p
Chapter VI Crumpled Flowers Celia and Emmett dance through a shared dream. Mar. 8, 2016 15 p
Chapter VII Roxanne’s Rock Bottom Celia interrogates a truculent prisoner. Mar. 8, 2016 42 p
Chapter VIII Party at the Evergreen Celia lets her hair down at one of the French Quarter lord’s infamous revels. Mar. 8, 2016 41 p
Chapter IX Sisters’ Goodbye Celia says a surprisingly easy farewell. Mar. 9, 2016 23 p
Chapter X Dangerous Playdates Caroline discovers what’s become of an old acquaintance—and victim—at a children’s playdate.
• A children’s playdate turns perilous as Celia reveals her true identity to one of the prince’s agents.
Mar. 9, 2016 47 p
Chapter XI A Mother’s Fears Celia digs into the past with her mortal mother. Mar. 9, 2016 28 p
Interlude I Buried Things Ayame suffers under a cruel domitor. Nov. 11, 2009 13 p
Chapter XII Bad Shoes, Bad News Celia tries to lure an older lover back into her arms. Mar. 9, 2016 26 p
Interlude II The Cypress Grove Massacre Ayame tries to avert a slaughter of the city’s thin-bloods. Dec. 4, 2011 22 p
Chapter XIII Sweet Reunions Celia reconnects with her one-time paramour. Mar. 9, 2016 62 p
Interlude III Passage Out Ayame reaches an arrangement with an unexpected contact. Mar. 10, 2016 13 p
Chapter XIV Donovan Celia receives a dire mission from her sire. Mar. 10, 2016 25 p
Chapter XV Eternity of Nights Celia goes home with someone she loves. Mar. 10, 2016 37 p

IV: Web of Lies

Celia lies. She has to. There’s her sire: dark and terrible and pitiless, to whom her heart belongs. She lies for him, to advance his plots. Then there’s her lover: fraught with hurt, but decent and kind. She lies to him, for his own good. Between them both is her grandsire, weaving his plots behind a smiling facade. She lies to him and for him, to maintain a place by his side. And, of course, she lies to her family that she’s still human. Celia lies every night.

How long can she keep the house of cards from collapsing?

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Daytime Dangers Celia deals with some unexpected intruders into her lover’s haven. Mar. 10, 2016 16 p
Chapter II Diana’s White Knight Celia runs into an unwelcome figure from her past. Mar. 10, 2016 39 p
Chapter III One Pass Celia goes to Peter Lebeaux for some sorely needed advice. Mar. 10, 2016 14 p
Chapter IV Family Deliberations Celia debates what to do about hunters and her mother’s new infatuation. Mar. 10, 2016 41 p
Chapter V Hurting Hearts Celia pays a visit to her real father and deals with some misbehaving ghouls. Mar. 10, 2016 23 p
Chapter VI Warlock’s Counsel Celia seeks advice over a soul-eater and the prince’s secret childe. Mar. 11, 2016 21 p
Chapter VII Hidden Hearts Celia enjoys a moment of respite in her lover’s arms. Mar. 11, 2016 32 p
Chapter VIII Truths & Bindings Celia puts in an appearance at Elysium. Mar. 11, 2016 30 p
Chapter IX Poor Substitutes Celia questions an orphaned ghoul and finds comfort in the arms of someone she doesn’t really want. Mar. 11, 2016 29 p
Chapter X Danielle Garrison Celia shepherds a fledgling into the night. Mar. 12, 2016 26 p
Chapter XI Wearying Choices Celia helps her lover arrive at a decision. Mar. 12, 2016 29 p
Chapter XII Father’s Atonement Celia hears the last words she ever expected from an estranged relative. Mar. 12, 2016 36 p
Chapter XIII Playing With Fire Celia breaks some surprising news to her family. Mar. 12, 2016 45 p
Chapter XIV Josua & the Good Girl Celia takes a new lover. Mar. 12, 2016 45 p
Interlude I Nothing to Offer Ayame gets asked for some inconvenient help. Mar. 10, 2016 6 p
Chapter XV Savoy’s Schemes Celia weaves new intrigues with her grandsire. Mar. 13, 2016 37 p
Chapter XVI New Man, New Face Celia gives an old client a new lease on life.
A fledgling gets a new face.
Mar. 13, 2016 13 p
Chapter XVII Forbidden Dalliances Caroline and Celia share a moment with one of the few Kindred to understand them. Mar. 13, 2016 50 p
Chapter XVIII She Hurt Mother Celia flees a madhouse. Mar. 13, 2016 21 p
Chapter XIX Dark Deliverance Celia comes face to face with her maker in her hour of need. Mar. 13, 2016 27 p
Chapter XX Breaking Masks Celia frantically tries to stop the Masquerade from unraveling around her mortal family. Mar. 13, 2016 13 p

V: Truth Comes Out

Celia’s first great lie is exposed: a mortal close to her heart knows she’s a vampire. Now they can never go back. Shepherding a mortal into the terrifying world of the Kindred without destroying their love for one another will be a challenge unlike any Celia’s faced.

Too bad it’s not her only one. Antoine Savoy, Lord of the French Quarter, wants to use Celia’s new lover as a pawn in his latest plot… and he expects Celia to use every lie and dirty trick in her arsenal. If she wants to retain her grandsire’s favor, she’ll have to hurt the only Kindred to show her true decency and kindness.

Will she choose love or power?

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Shattered Lies Celia picks up the pieces of a broken Masquerade. Mar. 13, 2016 40 p
Chapter II War Plans Celia prepares for war. Mar. 13, 2016 34 p
Chapter III Firm Hands Celia realizes she’s made a terrible mistake with a loved one. Mar. 13, 2016 24 p
Chapter IV Mending Fences Celia reunites a brother and sister. Mar. 13, 2016 36 p
Chapter V Grace the Slave Celia breaks in a new ghoul and walks back from a terrible new sin. Mar. 14, 2016 55 p
Chapter VI Grim Futures Celia gets her fortune told, attempts to win back an aggrieved friend, and hides a new weakness. Mar. 14, 2016 45 p
Chapter VII Cover-Ups Celia interrogates a spy and gets help burying some ghouls’ inconvenient memories. Mar. 15, 2016 51 p
Chapter VIII Double Score Celia seduces an ex-jockey and decides how to get rid of an inconvenient snoop. Mar. 15, 2016 41 p
Chapter IX The Bitch is Mine Caroline entertains a messenger from her sire’s archrival.
Celia delivers a message from Antoine Savoy and makes a cruel point to her other personality’s lover.
Mar. 15, 2016 20 p
Chapter X The Oven Monster Celia feeds an alien hunger. Mar. 15, 2016 48 p
Chapter XI Transformations Celia prepares to seduce an ex-prince with her new lover. Mar. 16, 2016 53 p
Chapter XII Lucky Night Celia meets the luckiest man in New Orleans. Mar. 16, 2016 35 p
Chapter XIII Small Atonements Celia helps a thin-blood adjust to unlife and spies upon a potential new adversary. Mar. 16, 2016 21 p
Chapter XIV Reconciliations Celia tries to patch things up between two quarreling siblings. Mar. 17, 2016 36 p
Chapter XV The Doll & Librarian Celia learns—and regrets—new truths about her mother and a doll long in her possession. Mar. 17, 2016 17 p
Chapter XVI Mended Hearts Celia admires the fruits of two siblings she’s brought back together—and nurses hidden jealousies. Mar. 17, 2016 16 p
Chapter XVII Unwanted Reunions Celia confronts her mother with a past relic she never wanted to see again. Mar. 17, 2016 28 p
Chapter XVIII Edith Flannagan Celia slums it in Rampart Street to question a Quarter rat. Mar. 17, 2016 53 p
Chapter XIX Will Carolla Celia takes another lover and gets caught up in a Mafia hit job. Mar. 18, 2016 22 p
Chapter XX Hidden Bodies & Open Hearts Celia and Roderick cover up an inconvenient crime scene. Mar. 18, 2016 32 p
Chapter XXI The Secret Childe Celia shatters her paramour’s world with a truth he never wanted to face. Mar. 18, 2016 39 p
Chapter XXII Buried Sons Celia attempts to comfort a father in his loss. Mar. 18, 2016 53 p
Chapter XXIII Donovan’s Displeasure Celia tries to forestall her sire’s wrath with a heart-wrenching sacrifice. Mar. 18, 2016 48 p

VI: Two Steps From Ruin

Celia’s in trouble. So is everyone she loves. Caroline Malveaux-Devillers, secret childe to the prince, plots to destroy her sire. She’d die to stop that. Her heart belongs to him… when she’s not with her lover.

Things there are little better. A horrific truth has shattered her lover’s world and sent him into a spiral of bitterness and betrayal. There couldn’t have been a worse time for him to discover that Celia’s cheating on him. There couldn’t have been a worse time for Celia to be hiding even more lies. Will coming clean allow their seemingly doomed love to survive? Or are some sins too awful to forgive?

It seems like no matter what she decides, Celia’s fated to lose everyone she loves.

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Behind the Mask Celia taunts a sister and seeks out a Malkavian for answers at Elysium.
Julius acquits himself in Elysium despite his clanless blood.
Mar. 18, 2016 47 p
Chapter II Corrected Celia’s lover takes charge of their relationship. Mar. 19, 2016 25 p
Chapter III Porcelain Unions Celia realizes a path forward with her mother and the still-mysterious doll in her possession. Mar. 19, 2016 25 p
Chapter IV Duke & Demons Celia searches for answers from her alleged sire and the Tremere clan. Mar. 19, 2016 34 p
Chapter V Into the Microwave Celia dons a familiar mask as she submits to another abuser. Mar. 19, 2016 23 p
Chapter VI Dancer in the Dusk Celia confesses everything in a bid to salvage a spiraling relationship. Mar. 19, 2016 39 p
Chapter VII Rewards & Punishments Celia trusts her lover that he knows best. Mar. 19, 2016 23 p
Chapter VIII Broken Homes Celia helps her mother forgive her other personality’s misdeeds. Mar. 19, 2016 25 p
Chapter IX Yachts & Hunters Celia cuts an accord with a Caitiff and reports her findings on some hunters.
Julius sells a yacht to a winsome Toreador.
Mar. 19, 2016 19 p
Chapter X Period Party Celia enjoys herself at a ‘20s-themed party.
Cletus spends some time with his famiglia.
Julius makes a fashionable debut to Savoy’s court.
Mar. 19, 2016 31 p
Chapter XI Mob Entanglements Celia reaches an accord with Reynaldo Gui and gets attacked by a vengeful Gangrel.
Julius offers some translation help.
Mar. 20, 2016 39 p
Chapter XII Camilla Doriocourt Celia faces kidnapping and torture at the Guard de Ville’s hands. Mar. 20, 2016 47 p
Chapter XIII Missing Daughters Celia has dinner with two abusers. Mar. 20, 2016 31 p
Chapter XIV Lucy’s Reunion Celia heals a divided soul. Mar. 20, 2016 39 p
Chapter XV Masks & Lies Celia introduces a friend to her other personalities and receives some badly needed relationship advice. Mar. 20, 2016 33 p
Chapter XVI Thugs & Snakes Celia clashes with the hounds to unmask a spy and seeks out lore from Setites. Mar. 20, 2016 27 p
Chapter XVII The Listening Child
Caroline takes an unpleasant phone call.
Celia brings another family member in on her secret—and tries to stop another from ruining a child’s life.
Mar. 21, 2016 34 p
Chapter XVIII Girls’ Night
Celia gets hammered with her sister and prank calls a deserving target. Mar. 21, 2016 33 p
Chapter XIX The Greatest Lie Celia commits her blackest sin yet—and learns a truth that could change everything. Mar. 21, 2016 23 p
Chapter XX The Last Straw • Roderick gives Celia one last chance to fix their relationship. Mar. 21, 2016 31 p

VII: Liar’s Harvest

Celia has a new enemy: a monster she created. He knows her secrets and loathes her utterly. Worse, Antoine Savoy won’t help. Celia’s failed him too many times. Doubly worse, her personal Masquerade contains to unravel: too many mortals close to her have seen unexplainable things. Their lives are forfeit if other Kindred find out.

Celia’s always been able to spin setbacks into wins. But sometimes there is no winning… only surviving. Even as Celia fights to keep her own unlife from spiraling apart, a storm descends upon the city. Celia will be at ground zero when it hits.

Survive or die, her unlife will never be the same.

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Roderick’s Revenge • An ex-lover gets even with Celia. Mar. 21, 2016 19 p
Chapter II Jade’s Revenge Celia gets even with an ex-lover. Mar. 21, 2016 22 p
Chapter III Celia Meets Jade Celia re-commits one of her darkest sins and reaches an accord with her alternate personality. Mar. 21, 2016 14 p
Chapter IV The Missing Mafioso Celia gets interrogated about a missing Kindred by the last person she wants to see. Mar. 21, 2016 27 p
Chapter V Forbidden Fruits Celia tempts a once-good man into the blackest of sins. Mar. 21, 2016 42 p
Chapter VI Last Ditch Help Caroline deigns to help cover up a Masquerade breach.
Celia delivers an orphan into a mother’s care and enlists some desperate help to cover up a Masquerade breach.
Mar. 22, 2016 39 p
Chapter VII I Killed Her Celia confesses an unforgivable crime to a loved one. Mar. 22, 2016 24 p
Chapter VIII Keep Her Safe Celia tries to safeguard her sister from exposure to the Kindred world and gets chewed out by her grandsire’s warden. Mar. 22, 2016 35 p
Chapter IX Patch Job Celia gets a mortal’s inconvenient memory erased. Mar. 22, 2016 27 p
Chapter X One Daughter, Two Faces Celia helps her mother reach an understanding with her other personality. Mar. 22, 2016 18 p
Chapter XI Good Men Celia acquaints her ghoul with a new master and enjoys an evening with a man who’s everything she wants. Mar. 22, 2016 30 p
Chapter XII Zeke the Man Celia takes out her frustrations on someone weaker after an unfortunate lapse of control. Mar. 22, 2016 22 p
Chapter XIII Second Chances Celia tries to patch things up with a furious sister. Mar. 22, 2016 34 p
Chapter XIV Confessions & Rematches Celia deals with a dishonest ghoul and watches her ex from afar. Mar. 22, 2016 19 p
Chapter XV The Alchemist Celia searches for a thin-blooded alchemist. Mar. 22, 2016 36 p
Chapter XVI Dead Ends Celia helps a ghoul off the streets, pursues a disappeared hunter, and gets a cabbie in way over his head. Mar. 22, 2016 30 p
Chapter XVII Paul’s Last Round Celia runs into an old abuser. Mar. 23, 2016 64 p
Chapter XVIII The Sheriff’s Haven Celia plumbs her sire’s haven for secrets. Mar. 23, 2016 77 p
Chapter XIX Aftermath Celia awakens in a sister’s care and receives a chilly homecoming. Mar. 23, 2016 23 p
Epilogue Wolves at the Door • Seizing advantage of Vidal’s new weakness, Savoy and the Baron launch major offensives into their archrival’s territory. Mar. 23, 2016 p

VIII: Feast of Ashes

The cataclysmic Battle of Mt. Carmel is over. Celia lost almost everything. As she struggles to rebuild her unlife from the ashes, she must answer: who is Celia Flores, without her loves and lies? Can she even stay Celia when the prince’s agents come calling?

Does she want to?

Date at chapter start
Page count
Chapter I Caroline tries to warn a lover away from danger. Celia attends to a battle’s fallen. Mar. 24, 2016 43 p
Chapter II Celia searches her father’s house for demonic influence. Mar. 26, 2016 33 p
Chapter III Celia exposes an old lie about her paternity. Mar. 27, 2016 36 p
Chapter IV Celia operates on her mother’s leg and upholds an unpleasant agreement with an ex. Mar. 30, 2016 30 p
Chapter V Celia trains under her sister-in-blood, pays a social call to Pierpont McGinn, and delivers a mother her child’s body. Mar. 31, 2016 24 p
Chapter VI Celia takes her mortal sister, disguised as a ghoul, on a “field trip” to experience Kindred society. Apr. 2, 2016 73 p
Chapter VII Celia meets a long-estranged aunt and her dead sister’s son. Apr. 2, 2016 46 p
Chapter VIII Apr. 5, 2016
Chapter IX Celia plans her own death. Apr. 9, 2016 51 p
Chapter X Celia discovers a group of humans performing blasphemous medical experiments unlike any she’s seen. Apr. 10, 2016 31 p
Chapter XI Celia seizes a chance to redeem herself in her grandsire’s eyes by negotiating an accord with a group of hunters. Apr. 13, 2016 46 p
Chapter XII Celia seeks out legal counsel from the last person she expected: the spurned ex-lover who was once her everything. Apr. 15, 2016 55 p
Chapter XIII Celia smooths over a social worker’s visit to her family.
Isadora checks in on a child’s welfare.
Apr. 18, 2016 20 p
Chapter XIV Celia executes her plot to fake her own death, double-crossing the Guard de Ville in a fraudulent hand-off. Apr. 18, 2016
Emil III, Chapter VII
Babel's Price

“It’s not just a machine. It’s a miracle.”
Emil Kane

Thursday night, 18 October 2007, AM

GM: Codi still has yet to show back up. Emil imagines he could look at those mosaics, listen to Elliot’s stories, and read the books here for hours. The other slave notes as much.

“But there’s… actually something neat I could show you, deeper in the warren,” he ventures.

Emil: “Oh? What sort of thing?” Emil inquires, a fresh flame of curiosity flickering to life in his eyes.

GM: “You… you really have to see it. Explaining doesn’t do it justice.”

Emil: At that, peaks of flame gleam out the darkness in the centers of his pupils as his interest is piqued. Nothing’s better than a good surprise.

“Well then, by all means lead the way!” he expresses, scooping up his now zipped duffel bag.

GM: Elliot glances around, then walks up to one of the bookshelves and pulls out an unremarkable-looking book. Or at least, starts to. It doesn’t come all the way out. The shelf shunts to the side with a low whir, revealing a literal hole in the wall.

Emil: Emil looks at Elliot with the unbridled expression of joy that only a real life book lever could elicit.

GM: Elliot beckons him in, then presses a button on the shelf’s back. It slides back in place with another low whir.

“Pretty cool, right?” he chuckles.

Emil: “Oh yeah,” he agrees, still fantasizing about where he’d install one once he buys a house. Emil turns from the now closed door into the hidden chamber.

GM: It’s less a chamber than it is a rough-hewn tunnel. It stretches on into the gloom further than Emil can make out. The walls look like concrete, or maybe stone. There aren’t any lights that Emil can see. It seems strange, in fact, that he can see.

“I don’t think the Nosferatu know that I know about this place,” says Elliot. “But, well, eight years looking after the books. I found it by accident one night.”

Emil: “Ah that’s the trick of these book levers. A really well-hidden one can’t brute forced, you impose a required order of books to pull. Though, in a library this large, I guess they didn’t expect anyone unauthorized to try touch so many books.”

GM: “Yeah. I mean, it’s looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“A required order of books is smart, though. There’s still a random chance someone might pull that book, however small, but that chance gets exponentially smaller with even two in a specific order.”

Emil: “That’s locks for you,” Emil’s voice echoes as he drifts down the hall, feeling the cold walls with the gloved back of his hand. “To someone who knows there’s something to find, they’re at best a deterrent. That would make for a stronger deterrent though.”

GM: “Well, I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t do that here, I might never have found this place.” He walks deeper into the tunnel with Emil. It’s bare well for as far as he can see. “I’m not sure why it’s even here.”

Emil: “I dunno, as far as I’ve experienced, long, dark tunnels that arrive at special locations play key roles in the Nosferatu aesthetic.” Then again, Emil hasn’t seen very much beyond the first tunnel, so perhaps that’s a misjudgment. “Where else would you place it?”

GM: “Sorry, I didn’t mean why it’s here specifically. I mean why it’s even here at all.”

“But, let’s go. I never know if any of them are gonna show up while I’m in here…”

Emil: “I don’t want to get you in trouble, of course. But,” he says, staring down the seemingly endless hall, taken with the potential it holds. He frowns, though, at how clearly the hard walls are visible in the darkness. He glances around for a light source and sees none. “Where does it lead?”

GM: “Just… c’mon. You’ll see.”

It’s a long, long walk down the lightless tunnel. Emil can’t see the end, and after a little while, he can’t see where they started either. The pair’s footsteps echo behind them.

Eventually, they reach the end. Another hole in the wall surveys their surroundings, dozen of feet below:

It’s a cathedral-like cavern is as long as a football field and as tall an apartment building. Hundreds of columns stretch on and on and on for as far as Emil can see. It takes him a moment to realize it’s partly illusory, and the space is ‘merely’ as tall as a two-story family house: the lower half of the columns are actually a reflection cast in an enormous pool of water. The space is vast, eerie, and elegant, reminiscent of ancient Roman ruins.

“It used to be a drinking water reservoir,” Elliot whispers over the steady plunk of water. It’s less like listening to a drip-drip than to a low rainstorm: the enormous space must be making the sounds echo a thousand-fold.

“One of the city’s first. Built in 1926, holding 15 million gallons.”

“These days that isn’t actually a lot. Houston uses an estimated 500 million daily gallons now.”

“It was decommissioned after it sprang an irreparable leak. I’m not sure that leak was an accident. So it’s just sat here, ever since… for them to use.”

Emil: There’s an inherent question that leads to: for what? What does this place hold now that the water has receded? The emptiness is tangible, it sits stale in the slow-drifting air that cleaves to the lowered surface of the rippling reflection.

It’s like a vacuum. The void calls and its greatest wish is to be filled. It forces the closed open, forces what’s inside out. It leaves Emil’s jaw hung slack, and his eyes stretched wide. The air fills his lungs.

What does it bring out of them? What do you do with a room so utterly removed from its purpose? Removed of all but the columns which perpetuate the void’s existence.

“Why? What do they need this place for?”

GM: “That’s where it gets good,” Elliot whispers.

“They’re going to be here soon. All of them.”

“And… you’ll see. Like I said, you really have to see it…”

Emil: “What if they see…?” he starts, trailing off. “They’re not Kindred are they?” They couldn’t be. Not with him so eager to be around them. Unless.

GM: “Well, yes. I mean… who else would they be?”

“But we’re pretty far away. I just lie flat on the ground, to be double safe. They haven’t seen me yet.”

Emil: Unless they just don’t notice him at all. The place is so vast, and they’re so small. Silent flies on the wall. Just like looking through a camera, like watching a screen. The thought stems the deluge of his thoughts, loosens the tightness of his stance.

“In that case,” he whispers. Lowering into a seated position and patting the floor at his side, he adds, “Let’s get comfortable. We’ve got the best seats in the house.”

Thursday night, 18 October 2007, AM

GM: The pair wait a little while. Eventually, figures start to emerge from other holes in the walls. Emil can’t make out their faces from two stories up, but it’s obvious what they all are. Some are merely pale-faced, pointed-eared, and obviously inhuman, but not inherently hideous. Others are cursed with jutting fangs, knife-like claws, warts and boils, split lips and lazy eyes, hunchbacks and club feet, festering wounds and cleft palettes, scars and wrinkles: every defect and deformity that Emil can think to imagine is present among these elephant men and women. Some are small, twisted little dwarfs. Some are Emil’s size and build. Some are walking scarecrows or praying mantises, all gaunt lines and sleek cruel angles. Some are bloated like rotted corpses. One is so impossibly fat as to be at least as wide as she is tall, with layers upon layers of fat that look ready to spill over the floor in an adioposic tide. Codi is there among them. Some wear rags, others casual clothing, and some even don suits and formal wear, albeit with thick leather boots. There must be dozens of them.

They’re also wheeling in something on expansive, almost raft-like platforms to keep it out of the water. Emil recognizes what can only be the gray-black racks and cabinets of a supercomputer. There are dozens upon dozens of those tall rectangular blocks and veritable nests of cables and wiring. A transparent glass or plastic enclosure surrounds sections of the great machine with assorted vents and attached cables, circuits, and machines. Some of them have to be dehumidifers if they don’t want moisture to cause internal damage and corrosion to the computer’s sensitive components, but there has to be ventilation for all of the heat it must produce too. Emil’s heard of one supercomputer that produces enough heat to warm a university campus.

Several figures make guiding motions with their hands, as if to direct the other ones pulling the machine along. Those laborers look less ugly than their masters: some could even pass for normal. Minutes pass as they move the dozen-odd platforms bearing the supercomputer’s components into position around the cistern’s pillars.

Emil: The slow-moving gathering of these disfigured monsters assaults Emil’s insular cortex with a curious mixture of emotions, all heightened, all vital. It sends pangs of revulsion crawling beneath his skin, encircling his windpipe, and nearly triggering his gag reflex. No amount of vile internet filth could prepare him for the sight. But paired with that revulsion comes a heady aura of awe, potent with the legend that surrounds them. Each of the imposing figures are but leaves sprouting off centuries old branches, and those but twigs extending off the thickest of millennium trunks. Each and every one of them invigorated through capillary veins by the very same antediluvian blood. Nosferatu.

And for all that emotion, all of that impossibly old stems of blood that fill the room, that is all overshadowed to Emil by the machine they construct before him. This is their king, their tabernacle, carried in on a floating pedestal. It is untouchable. It is holy. And it is new, a marvel of modern engineering towering over the canopy of that vital tree.

Tulane never had anything like this behemoth. Stuck in the past. And yet these monsters, perhaps some even older than Tulane, hold the future in their hands readily.

The contrast leaves a great tension in Emil’s limbs, and he waits with bated breath for the mystery in that contrast to reveal itself, taking small moments to read Elliot’s face before flicking back to the construct.

GM: Elliot looks a little surprised.

“That’s new,” he whispers. “I haven’t seen them with a computer that big before…”

Emil: “That’s no mere computer,” Emil whispers back, his voice struck reverent. “It’s so, so much more.”

GM: “A supercomputer, right. Don’t they mostly use those for scientific research?”

“I’m not sure what the Nosferatu would be doing with one.”

Emil: “To call that behemoth a supercomputer is like calling the U.S. a superpower. To describe it like that demonstrates the sheer power of its output, true. But it hides the beautiful complexity the structure encapsulates. Each supercomputer is an electronic city, an intricate structure of hundreds of networked computers orchestrated to act in concert. Millions of workers fire faster than sound down the intertwined highways of cables, responding to calls to action made in any one of those metal towers. They turn on a dime, swapping destinations at the will of the puppeteering conductor called the scheduler. Every act, every moment, all towards enacting the living, breathing will of the city. And that will is to uncover, to reveal the unanswered. It’s the ideal city, unhindered by the forces of corruption or the slowness of flesh. It is made of uncountable streams of pure information, geared as one to the eternal construction of great works and wonders.”

“It’s not just a machine. It’s a miracle.”

All of this he whispers with a solemn intensity. Letting moments of empty silence sit between each phrase. These are words for Elliot only, and yet he doesn’t look at Elliot as he speaks. He narrates as the city is constructed before them, Virgil waxing poetic as he shows his Dante the purpose each of the construct’s layers.

GM: “That’s a beautiful way to describe it,” Elliot answers reverently. “You make it sound so pure in its purpose. So vast and complex and yet so totally devoted towards the pursuit of knowledge. I think you’re right there’s something sacred in that.”

A pause.

“But why do you think they prayed for this miracle?”

Emil: “I don’t know. But whatever it is, it’s big. You don’t just risk water damaging this scale of equipment on a whim. And if it’s to present a finding, they didn’t need to show it being computed. Maybe its presence is more symbolic. This could be a ritual of sorts.”

GM: “A ritual? As in… magic?”

Emil: “Well, I meant in a broadly religious or organizational sense. A ritual is a codified series of performative steps, usually incorporating the use of symbolically important objects, which physically calls upon the power behind the ritualists’ faith or ideology to be present during an important moment.”

It couldn’t be magic, of course not. That’s impossible. Then again, so were vampires just a few nights back.

“But,” he says, his eyes drifting upwards, “maybe…”

GM: “Maybe. I mean, most rituals in the sense you’re describing are pretty old things. Catholic mass. Bar mitzvah. Marriage. I can’t think of any that incorporate supercomputers.”

Emil: “Well, for major long-established religions, sure. But New Religious Movements have popped up in the US in great numbers since the 19th century, each with its own new ideology. And if you have an ideology, you likely have at least ritual or two. Especially based around powerful objects in the context of the ideology.”

“For a group who value gathering information, I can think of no better ritual focus than the wellspring of secrets discoverable through supercomputers. That just begs the question: what do they believe in?”

GM: “Yeah, but supercomputers are expensive objects. It’s largely scientists and academics rather than ideologues and believers in fringe religions who have access to them.”

“But you’re right they’re especially significant objects to the Nosferatu. And… I’m not sure what they believe in, beyond the legends about their clan’s past. Nicodemus believes in Judaism, but Codi doesn’t seem to believe in… well, I don’t really know what he believes in.”

Suddenly, lights and noises begin to go up from below.

Emil: The sudden sensory chorus rips Emil’s attention instantly away from his newfound friend to the dynamic branches of light weaving in and out of existence, a matrix covering every singular pillar supporting the cistern’s structure.

Those sounds accompanying the visuals are overwhelming. The sound of rain plunking against the water augments from a drizzle to a storm in a matter of moments, and echoing off the cistern walls the feedback loop assaults his sense from every possible direction which an all-encompassing volume. The cavernous drone accompanying it all grows steadily louder having sprouted from silence. The weight of it all feels like a pair of conch shells has been pressed so firmly against his ears that the ocean water has started to spill directly into his thoughts. There are faraway voices in the water, messages shredded to incomprehensibility by reverb and distance, but undeniably present, humanity splitting off from the bellowing tones.

Were Elliot to break sight of the mesmerizing moment, he would find Emil’s eyes darting wildly around, their white surfaces stretching to reflect the composite totality of the scene.

GM: A new sound soon joins the ‘rain.’

It’s similar. It’s a thundering, hail-like sound, echoing throughout the cavernous space dozens upon dozens of times in its own feedback loop. When Emil looks across the assembled figures below, he sees they’re all making the same motion. Though each of them suffers under their clan’s curse in their own way, they’re all smacking their hands together, pulling them apart, and then smacking them back together.

They’re applauding.

“I told you that you had to see it,” whispers Elliot, a smile stealing across his face.

Emil: “It’s beautiful,” Emil whispers in turn, still struck by the scene. The broken coming together to see the perfect.

GM: “I’ve seen them let other vampires into the warren, sometimes,” Elliot whispers. “Like you.”

“But I’ve never seen them let anyone but their own see this.”

“They don’t let anyone else watch. They’re… they’re monsters, but what they do here… it’s art.”

Emil: It’s odd, being grouped among other vampires, though Emil is only a slave. He doesn’t correct him, though. His smile widens.

“It’s their secret. They don’t need to look normal on the outside, their beauty comes in the things they make together. In light. And in shadow.”

“I… I think I get it,” he says in hushed tones.

“The secrecy lives at its core. Only a chosen few get to form a relationship with the piece, so the secret lets the viewer become part of the art. It lets the art impart its beauty on them in turn.”

GM: “Exactly,” Elliot agrees. “The secret becomes part of the entire experience. It may not change the actual art piece itself, but it’s the same reason why chefs focus on presentation and atmosphere and not just the taste of their food.”

Emil: “Hey, I guess that means you and I are part of the secret now too. Just by sharing this moment with each other. That makes you a piece of the art. Makes you a piece of art. Almost like Prince Zvi’s portrait. You’re a living mosaic, Elliot, and you’re painted with light.”

GM: Elliot actually blushes at Emil’s compliment.

“Oh, well. Thanks.”

The pair are interrupted, however, as a rough and phlegmy voice echoes up from below. The speaker has to be using some kind of microphone for Emil to hear from this far away, or it might just be the cistern’s acoustics. If Emil dropped a pebble he could imagine the splunking noise ringing off the enormous walls for ever and ever, like the speaker’s voice seems to.

“I’m not gonna spoil this moment with too many words. We aren’t degenerates. We let things speak for themselves.”

“I’m just here to say that all of that, was for this.”

An echoing clap rings through the cistern.

“I know what you’ve all been thinking. I know what you’ve all heard.”

“Well, we are not letting the work of decades fall apart. For too long we’ve been thinking too small. We’ve fallen behind.”

“So, this is our answer. It’s the first of its kind in this corner of the country.”

Emil: So it’s an unveiling, then. But that’s a lot of effort to bring it in person. It’s like a military parade, but for compute-power.

Emil can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. To have the kind of resources necessary to build a supercomputer lies firmly in the realm of fantasy for the new slave.

GM: “My thanks to Opal, Meeks, Ross, and everyone else for their roles in making this possible.”

“This is our answer. This is our future. We will beat those fuckers at their own game.”

“That’s all I have to say.”

Applause sound again, loudly ringing off the cistern’s walls, though more muted than the first round of clapping.

Emil: What sort of “game” requires this beefy technology?

Emil repeats the names in his head, Opal, Meeks, and Ross.

Carter said the Nosferatu were the ones with real tech interest, so probably not other Kindred. Hunters, maybe. But Lucky’s crew couldn’t tell a calculator from an abacus.

“You know what org they’re referring to?” Emil whispers to Elliot.

GM: Elliot looks uncertain. “Maybe other Kindred?” he whispers back. “They don’t all get along.”

Sploshing footsteps ring up from below, along with indistinct sounds of chatter endlessly echoing off the cistern’s cavernous walls. The Kindred below seem to be leaving.

Emil: Well that was fast.

GM: The supercomputer stays where it is. So do a few other lone Kindred.

Emil: Must have been the rabble clearing out. What does that make these? Leadership? Or just the IT guys? Maybe that isn’t too different a role down here.

“You recognize any of them?” Emil asks in a whisper.

GM: “Well, Ross is one the older Kindred here,” Elliot whispers back. “And there’s… Nicodemus.”

He shrinks back from the ledge. His voice comes out so faint Emil can barely hear.

“I’ve never seen any of these others… I don’t think they’re from here…”

Emil: Emil’s eyes flick between the different Kindred, drinking in their faces.

If Ross is here, then likely enough two of those must be Opal and Meeks.

What face does a Kindred like Nicodemus wear?

GM: Emil’s eye is first drawn to the enormous one he noticed earlier. She looks female, if her shape is anything to go by. He can’t make out many other details from so far away. Another one of the figures is tall and gaunt. There’s a shorter one dressed in a raincoat with enormous ears and a head that looks like it’s been shrunken by savages. There’s a taller male with cracked and leathery skin that looks as if it were left out to bake in desert heat for 100 years. The sewer rat next to him is shorter and squatter, but has no distinguishing deformities Emil can make out from so far away. There’s two other short males, one who looks rather portly, with some of the worst acne Emil has ever seen, even from two stories up. Several last figures, at least one of which looks female, are clad in heavy attire that conceals their faces.

All of them seem to be talking quietly among themselves.

Emil: It’s too far, it seems, for human ears to hear what they’re saying clearly enough to understand. But not, he hopes, for the mic, received alongside the laptop from the masked delivery man, hidden in the fabric of his bag, that’s recorded every echo in the chamber.

“He one of the tall ones?” Emil asks Elliot in a whisper.

GM: Elliot shakes his head.

Emil: “Wearing a raincoat?” he attempts.

GM: He shakes his head again.

Emil: “So does he just look…” Emil pauses, not quite sure how to put it, “Normal?”

GM: “None of them look normal,” Elliot whispers.

Emil: “Or well, comparatively less abnormal,” Emil whispers back stiltedly. “One of them is short and squat, but not especially abnormal.”

GM: “I guess?”

Emil: “That’s him?”

GM: “I guess?” Elliot repeats.

“Like I said, none of them look normal.”

Emil: “How would you describe him then?”

GM: “Short, harmless, balding little old man. His true form looks like that, but… twisted. His hair’s worse, he’s got claws, his mouth is twisted and doesn’t really close properly, one of his eyes is bigger than the other… um, why do you ask?”

Emil: “You pointed him out down there and said none of them look normal. All but him look like they have obvious abnormalities. I was just curious is all. Maybe it’s the distance, cause I can’t see them too well, but when you say true form, you mean he normally wears that harmless face?”

Emil’s seen this before, with the golem who jumped out of Paul’s window, it wore his face.

GM: “Yes. They can make themselves look normal. They just don’t bother down here.”

Emil: “So, there’s no need to hide in the darkness.”

GM: “Who’s here but them, slaves, and other… not-human things, right?”

Emil: “I guess you’re right. But, how do they know for sure no one else is watching? I mean, that’s what we’re doing,” Emil whispers.

GM: “Well, how do you know that anywhere? I guess they feel secure enough.”

“Still makes me wonder why that tunnel behind the bookshelf exists, though… if it’s to eavesdrop, one of them could just watch everything from below, right? They’re already invited.”

Emil: “Well, are you sure the Nosferatu do know about this place? What if one of the slaves who put this place together,” because of course Kindred wouldn’t have done the grunt work themselves, “dug this out in secret?”

GM: “I guess I’m not,” Elliot muses. “That would make sense, it’s not as if they always let us attend…”

Emil: “Or, well…” Emil surveils the high walls of the chasm, looking for further openings.

GM: His sight does not make out any.

Emil: “Hmm… maybe not… you know of any other tunnels in the warren, by chance?”

GM: “Sure, there’s lots. This place is huge.”

“You mean ones that are secret though, to the other Nosferatu?”

Emil: “Yeah, particularly those, like this one, that connect two places in an impractical way.”

GM: “Is it impractical? I mean, we’re able to eavesdrop here pretty effectively.”

“I don’t know of any others, anyway, but it definitely doesn’t seem impossible. Who knows how many tunnels are down here.”

Emil: “Maybe someone could map them out in full. I know seismic techniques aren’t always successful, but there might be a way to do it, especially if you can do the work from within the warrens themselves.”

GM: “Oh really, how do you think someone might do that, besides manually trying to explore each one?”

Emil: “Well, the general idea is you project a wave of pressure or electromagnetic radiation into the ground. By analyzing the portion of the wave that got reflected back instead of being absorbed, and comparing that to the data you’d expect without the tunnels, you find discrepancies which imply the presence of tunnels.”

GM: “Well, isn’t that the power of science,” says Elliot, managing a smile. “I wonder if any of them have even tried that, or if they just figure they know all the important tunnels already.”

Emil: “It’s that very same hubris that keeps scientific consensus from shifting on long-unchallenged issues even when presented with fresh evidence. Complete certainty is poison to discovery.”

One such certainty looks to be that the pair won’t be able to hear the whispers of the monsters below. It’s too far, it seems, for human ears to hear what they’re saying clearly enough to understand.

But certainty is simply an illusion of perspective. The muted mutterings are not, he hopes, beyond the sensitivity of the mic, received along with the laptop from the masked delivery man, that hides in the fabric of Emil’s bag, recording every singular echo in the chamber.

GM: But what the ghoul cannot hear, he can see.

The assembled Kindred below seem to have stopped talking. They’re “breaking up” the supercomputer. The transparent, rectangular-shaped enclosure, Emil sees, is divided into columns, each one containing perhaps a dozen looming gray cabinets. The sewer rats slowly retool the supercomputer’s shape into a circle, forming a great ring in the center of the cistern.

“Why are they doing that…?” Elliot frowns.

Emil: “Whatever it is, it’s important to them. Rewiring those cabinets is very delicate work on a raft. And each component is very expensive as well.”

GM: “Does a different shape somehow make it more efficient?”

Emil: Emil is mesmerized by their actions, the miracle machine coming apart and taking this bizarre form.

“…no… I don’t think it would…” he responds, his attention taken immediately back to the scene.

“…it’s like a…”

Great pillars, an electronic Stonehenge surrounding and equidistant center point. But at Stonehenge they observed the motions of the stars above. Down here, the above is sealed off, and no starlight pierces through the stony ceiling. And under the towers is the impenetrable murkiness of the shadowed depths. No above and no below, thus the focal point lies directly within. At the center.

“…ritual circle…”

GM: “…oh,” whispers Elliot.

Some of the sewer rats clamber on top of the glass enclosure. One of them, female judging by the shape, kicks and struggles as another carries her up. Actually, she doesn’t even look like a sewer rat. Emil can’t spot any deformities on her face and there are rope bonds around her arms and legs. She looks as if she’s crying, or perhaps hyperventilating.

One of the Nosferatu starts fondling her breasts. A few of the others look as if they’re laughing.

One of the other vampires makes an impatient gesture. One of the shorter, squatter Nosferatu approaches the bound woman with a knife. From up high, Emil can see that his wisp-thin hair looks like cobwebs, and that his twisted mouth hangs partly open.

Emil: “…at its center…”

Emil stares on, and as he makes out the tortured look of the woman, his awe is stricken by a fluttering lightness in his gut. He can feel her terror pervading the room, her inner turmoil rapping manically on the walls of mind, begging to be let in. He need only choose to listen in, to ensure she’s not alone when the inevitable arrives, but he can’t do it. He can’t risk losing control should he really feel what she must feel now. Bound, terribly alone, under the blade of an inhuman monster. And that’s when the terrible, terminal truth arrives.

“…she’s their sacrifice…”

GM: The Nosferatu slashes the bound woman’s throat. Blood leaks freely from the carved-in second smile as mouth falls open. Perhaps she gives a death rattle, or her eyes try to seek something, anything, beyond all this, but Emil can’t tell from where he is. She finally goes limp.

“Oh my god…!” exclaims Elliot, clutching his hands over his mouth.

Emil: There is no escape from the sight for Emil, the presence of death presses its hands at the sides of his head and force it to look, to listen, as the dying woman’s thoughts scratch at the borders of his mind, begging to be let in, begging for any respite from this moment.

As the knife slices through skin, cartilage, veins, and arteries, and the blood of her life spills out, he lifts his hand to the level of his eye and his lips proclaim a whispered refrain:

“שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד”

(“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”)

The whispers fall mute but his lips shape the still flowing words:

“בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.”
“בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.”
“בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.”

(“Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom now and forever.”)

“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”
“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”
“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”
“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”
“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”
“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”
“יְהוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים.”

(“The Lord is God.”)

“יְהוָה מֶלֶךְ. יְהוָה מָלָךְ. יְהוָה יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד.”

(“The Lord reigns. The Lord has always reigned. The Lord will reign now and forever.”)

His hand lowers. As the blood flows out the fount of his neck, and spills over the glass enclosure around the supercomputer, the tormented projections of the dying woman’s mind slow and fade until deathly quiet. Emil whispers one last phrase, borrowed from the tormented Job, as he takes in the stillness of the moment.

“יהוה נתן ויהוה לקח. יהי שם יהוה מברך מעתה ועד העולם. הצור תמים פעלו כי כל דרכיו משפט, אל אמונה ואין עול, צדיק וישר הוא.”

(“The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. The Lord’s name will be blessed from now and forever. The Rock, perfect is God’s work, fro all God’s paths are just; God of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is God.”)

Emil tears his the sleeves of dirt-coated undershirt in two places, and sits in the silence of death.

GM: Emil’s prayer hangs in the cistern’s silence. The Nosferatu, however, do not slow in their labors. Several more clamber up. They saw and pull at the corpse’s extremities, ripping off the limbs. They slit each one, as well as the torso, dribbling blood across the glass like messy paint. They produce paintbrushes and slowly work to paint the blood into designs that look like symbols.

The woman’s corpse, and its four severed limbs, is unceremoniously dumped into the water.

Emil: Emil sits stoically, taking it all in. He turns for a moment to check on his newfound friend.

GM: Elliot looks queasy.

“I can’t believe they did that,” he whispers.

Emil: “But they did do it. They’re still doing it. They all have blood on their hands,” he responds resolutely. Denial of the truth won’t undo what they just saw.

“But why? What do those symbols mean?”

He examines them from afar, trying to recall the shapes should they lie in the recesses of his memory.

GM: He’s too far away to make out anything distinct.

Emil: After a moment he sighs and stops squinting. “Can’t quite make them out this far.”

GM: “I guess some binoculars would’ve helped…”

One of the masked figures clambers on top of the glass. Female, judging by the build. She starts pouring out a white, sand-like substance from a container. She slowly makes her rounds over the supercomputer’s enclosure, forming an unbroken circle with the substance. Some of her fellows poke and prod at it.

Emil: “Well on the bright side…” Emil says, retrieving a pair from his bag along with a pad of paper and writing utensils. “I plan for nearly every possibility.”

He holds the view up to his eyes and peers out at the faraway blood-painted images. Then he audibly gasps at the sight.

He recognizes them, all of them. A complicated pattern of Kabbalistic Hebrew lettering and Hermetic symbols, intermixed with crimson streams of binary bits winding around and betwixt the symbols, chain links of red-dripped ones and zeroes.

And as he gazes over them, piecing together the intended meaning, he recalls how similar they are to the rippling patterns of letters that wrapped around the endless height of the Tower from his dreams.

It was real. He knew it was but this is proof. How could it not be? The writing is on the glass walls, though it is obviously a lesser projection of it. Drawn in blood instead of engraved, static instead of shifting, and missing all the other languages of the world. But if the projection exists, so does the projected, at least in some sense. His heart beats like a drum from a conflicted mixture of horror and ecstasy.

…real. It was real. All of it…

…and that means Metatron was too…

Emil’s muscles tense as the esoteric meaning behind this horrifying, awesome ritual ties together: It’s meant to summon an entity from another world, to bring it to the center of the ritual circle. To the summoning circle.

This is the Nosferatu’s secret weapon. Not the supercomputers. Those were only means to a greater end. A greater end that will soon appear in the nucleus of the cistern, right before his eyes. He knows it.

GM: The vampires on top of the supercomputer’s enclosure clamber off once they finish their work. More Nosferatu have since emerged, Emil notices through his binoculars, just as ugly as the ones before them. There’s perhaps a dozen individuals all told.

They seem to confer among themselves, for a little while. Their facial expressions aren’t always easy to read, on faces so hideous, but a few of them seem to be arguing with their fellows.

One of them points at the masked figures. The female one crosses her arms.

The dissent doesn’t last for long, though. Four of the sewer rats—the large-eared one, the massively obese one, the tall and gaunt one, and the one with the dessert-cracked skin—take turns talking. Their gestures and expressions look less like entreaties and more like ‘this is how it is.’

A fair number of the other vampires nod or make signs of agreement. Some of them are slower to nod, but still do so, or don’t say anything.

Emil: As more figures join, Emil starts to make sketches of the faces of the figures who stayed back initially.

Rabbi Shemtov’s son actually worked as a composite sketch artist for the HPD for a time before he made the switch to law enforcement. He told Emil that a good sketch doesn’t have to be exactly accurate, it just has to evoke the key features of the subject.

Whatever is gonna happen, he has to remember who was responsible, especially the ones not from around here. Maybe Carter will recognize them.

GM: A female Nosferatu whose face is covered with boils and pustules only shakes her head, then turns to leave the cistern. A few of the other vampires look angry, but most don’t. The one with the cracked skin holds up a forestalling hand. No one stops her as she leaves.

The large-eared Nosferatu approaches the terminal inside the glass enclosure and starts typing into it. He gives a nod. A few of the vampires remain behind, taking up positions at other points within the enclosure, but most file outside.

Someone has brought ladders. All of the others climb on top of the glass and spread out to equidistant points outside of the symbols and circles. They clutch grimoires in their hands: thick ledgers of technical documentation, ancient-looking tomes that seem like they could have come from Elliot’s library, and even one Kabbalistic text with yellowed parchment, thick Hebrew characters, and the 10-dotted sefirot diagram. The sewer rat who matches Elliot’s description of Nicodemus carries it.

In unison, the assembled vampires begin to chant. Some of their words are English. Others sound like Latin. One sounds Hebrew. It’s a dirge-like, droning, and bone-chilling sound that echoes endlessly off the cistern’s walls. It builds and builds off itself like a cthonic monster rising from the earth’s darkest depths.

Streams of code flash across the supercomputer’s terminals. Green lights blink and race along the supercomputer’s cabinets like flickering columns of fire.

Then, out of nowhere, perhaps a dozen bound and kneeling figures suddenly appear on top of the enclosure. The sewer rats yank hoods off their heads. There’s perhaps a dozen of them, an equal match of men and women. At least six of them look old, with heavily creased faces, grimy cheeks, and matted hair. Some look barely adults. Most of them look like people Emil could have encountered sleeping in the underground’s tunnels. Several, though, have clean and exceptionally comely faces. The misshapen vampires behind those apparent captives leer evilly. A few clawed and wart-spotted hands mockingly squeeze the good-looking captives’ breasts or stroke their flaccid dicks.

But young or old, ugly or pretty, all look terrified for their lives.

Emil: And he can’t do anything for them. All of them are consigned to their fates. Each one of them, set to die as sacrifices to open the gates to some unseen dimension, to give the Nosferatu a trump card. He thought the first woman was the sacrifice. No, she was just setting decoration. These are creatures of blood, like ticks, always ready to feed, to engorge themselves on more. Blood calls to blood and wishes to clot. For these haemovores to spill their most precious nectar on this scale, to end the lives of so many, the results must far overtake the costs.

GM: Some of them struggle. It avails them naught. The Nosferatu who looks like Nicodemus makes a sharp motion, then slashes a dagger across his captive’s throat. Most of them go out that way. A few particularly brutal-looking sewer rats, though, rip open the mortals’ throats with their bare hands. Emil makes out gleaming muscle and white bone through his binoculars as the blood flows. So much blood.

But a dozen gurgled and wetly shrieked death rattles are not so quiet as the girl’s was.

Not here.

Emil: One. Two. Three… On and on it goes. It feels like an eternity between each. He couldn’t save them, this was their awful fate, to be condemned underground, split open as a korban, on this altar of glass. But in a blasphemous inversion of the temple sacrifice, the blood is not discarded but the goal of the sacrifice.

And only a few short weeks after the closing of the book of death. He wonders why God chose this for them, what they have in store for them in the afterlife. After all this suffering, will they still require cleansing before they can present before the court of the Lord? Is this brutality not punishment enough?

He doesn’t look them in the eye before they go. Only at their shoes. And kneeling, forced to the ground, the tops are concealed. All he can make out are their soles. And no matter how unclean they were before their owners were taken, no matter how pure, one by one they get stained red as their wearers’ bodies flail like fish out of water. Blood spills like a deluge.

GM: Emil can’t even describe the sound. It’s amplified a thousand times by the enormous cistern’s acoustics. It’s wet like intestines being spilled from a corpse. It brims with pain and terror like a vat-sized pot brought to skin-scalding boil. It shrieks through his ears like a howling gale from the depths of the netherworld. It does not sound like a thousand voices crying out. There are no voices in the sound. It’s a thousand gurgled, animal-like heaves, ringing over and over and over throughout the cistern’s walls, never stopping, never dying, never moving on, knowing only suffering eternal.

It makes him think of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, on a long-ago family trip to Washington D.C. with his parents. All of those countless portraits in that great domed chamber.

Death on a scale impossible to comprehend.

Only to witness.

Even some of the Nosferatu look rattled, as if not realizing the full gravity of their collective sin. As if not anticipating the sheer ghastliness of the sound, which still does not die, but echoes on and on and on throughout the cistern, haunting the ritualists like an unquiet shade.

Emil has a moment to think about how fucked up that is. How these people are dead, but he’s still listening to them die. The sound of their deaths has literally outlived them.


Emil: The awful pull of death assaults every one of his senses, violating the most holy of things. The rending of God’s breath from the body of life. And in that unstoppable current, some part of Emil gets caught, dragged away, ripped from within. Murdered along with the rest of the sacrifices.

For a moment as the echoes of the dead rattle about the walls, Emil lowers the binoculars to look at Elliot, his mouth slung open, his eyes sunken and harrowed.

Tremors overcome his body. A thousand questions wrack his mind, all equally awful. But in the end, as the voices dim into oblivion, the loudest come through, and they all boil down to one simple word:


His mouth works in a soundless scream as he voids his bowels.

Then he does the only thing his terror-obliterated consciousness can do.

He runs.

He runs for dear life.

He runs for his sanity.

He runs for his soul.

Maybe he starts screaming. Weeping. Vomiting. He doesn’t know. All he can do is run, run, run, and heed the angel’s commandment to Lot’s wife:

Do not look behind you.

Emil III, Chapter VI
The Librarian

“There’s no such thing as lasting forever, Elliot. Even if you’re immortal. All there is, is tonight.”
Emil Kane

Thursday night, 18 October 2007, AM

GM: Mid-way through the pair’s journey, Codi forces Emil to wear a hood over his head so he can’t see. The sewer rat clearly thinks it’s hilarious to watch Emil stumble around blindly as he shouts directions. He shoves and pushes the ghoul forward, frequently hard enough to make Emil trip and scrape his hands trying to catch himself. Codi laughs and laughs before shoving Emil forward with another bellow to, “MOVE!”

“You’re so fucking useless! Ha ha ha!”

Emil: Just gotta keep the eyes on the prize.

As he’s being pushed around, he fantasizes about what Carter will say when he tells him about the info this oaf laid out for Emil practically on a silver platter.

He follows orders as best as he can manage.

GM: There’s another harsh shove that sends Emil stumbling forward as he half-trips.

“I’m gonna find your mom and shove you back up her cunt after I kill you!”

Emil: He’s the kind of sick stupid motherfucker who would try to keep that word, but forget about the shoving part once the killing was over with. For the moment, Emil knows it’s just words, empty. But Codi might just change his mind.

Emil cowers as he stumbles along. He just keeps going. Too scared to talk beyond ’yessir’s and ’nosir’s, that’s the image he wants to portray.

GM: There’s another push that sends Emil crashing face-first into a wall.

“Then I’m gonna fuck her! Say it, maggot! Say it’d be an honor if I fucked your whore mother!”

Emil: Bargain brand bullying.

He’s been forced to say worse to similar things with his head pressed against a wall. A few bad apples in the force growing up made this a near regular situation.

Mom told him how to handle it, like you’re being robbed, give them exactly what they want, life is far more important.

“It’d be an honor if you fucked my whore mother, sir,” he says, bracing against the hard wall.

GM:MOVE, idiot!” Codi yells, shoving him forward again.

“Ha! Ha ha ha! You’re so fucking pathetic!”

“I could rip your balls off and you wouldn’t be any different!”

Emil: The trick is to not show any intimation of challenging them. He says what he commands, steps to his beat, and plays into his charade. He lacks any luxury of acting otherwise.

GM:MOVE IT, dipshit! FASTER!”

It goes on for a while. Codi finally pulls off the hood and painfully kicks Emil onto his face against a bare concrete floor. Books on monolithic steel shelves stretch for as high and far as he can see. This place looks bigger than a downtown city library and Tulane’s library put together. Some of the books look like recent academic publications, with modern type fonts, while others are ancient-looking, half-crumbled things with protective plastic covers. Pompeii-style murals, visible only to “Kindred” eyes, line the walls not covered by books in a giant historical tapestry. Although many of the depicted subjects resemble deformed monsters, many of them hold dignified, even stately miens: one figure with blockish, green-hued skin like a rock is dressed in Orthodox vestments with a halo behind his head and an exactingly rendered city built upon his back. Another nearby mural shows a bear-sized crone with enormous iron claws and fangs flying through the air in a mortar she steers with a pestle, with dragon-like creatures roaring behind her. There are many further murals Emil can’t make out from his current position. It is truly a thing of beauty.

Emil: When the hood comes off, Emil is left awestruck at the contents of the room. There is so much to learn here, so much he could gain. The murals leave him awestruck, but to a lesser extent to the simply massive collection of data. He imagines pouring through them, feeding their contents into a computer and compressing the treasures they hold into compact bricks of knowledge. Solid state and hard disk drives terabytes a piece, each another priceless addition to the ever-growing tower.

GM: Codi delivers another anvil-like kick to Emil’s flank.

GET UP, maggot! Get up or I’ll break your hands!”

Emil: He snaps out of the reverie. He stands up swiftly at the monster’s command.

“Yes, sir.”

He might ask any other person acquainted with this place about the room, but Codi is an idiot, and very likely hasn’t read a book in all of his death.

GM:SLAVE!” the Nosferatu roars.

The coke glasses-wearing man Emil saw earlier swiftly appears. The haphazard cuts over his grimy face don’t look like they’ve healed, and he’s clad in the same stinking, ill-fitting rags. Only his hands, Emil notes, are immaculately clean.

“Y-yes, Codi, sir?”

He jabs a finger at Emil, then plants a palm behind the ghoul’s head and sends him sprawling face-first to the ground. Again.

“This renfield is USELESS. So are you. So you can both be useless together.”

He laughs at his own joke.

“If I don’t like what you’ve done by the time I’m back, I’m gonna rip up some more books.”

Emil: Out of all the terrible things Codi has spouted out of his dumb mouth, that offends Emil the most. But he doesn’t show it on his face.

GM: “No!” the man begs, clasping his hands. “Codi, sir, Nicodemus doesn-!”

Codi punches him in the gut, knocking him flat off his feet. He hits the floor in a moaning heap.

“I didn’t ask what you think, BITCH!”

Without a further word, the Nosferatu stalks away. His large form soon vanishes amidst the shelves.

Emil: Once he’s out of view, Emil moves to help the other slave off the floor. He gives him both arms to hold onto. He’s had a tendency in the past of getting pulled down when he offered only one.

GM: The man flinches at Emil’s touch, gives a mumbled, “It’s okay,” and clambers to his feet.

“So, uh. Shoe shining lessons?”

Emil: No touching then, poor guy.

“Actually, cybersecurity lessons,” he says, smiling. “That’s what we landed on on the way over.”

- …. -..- -. …. / …. . / ... -.-. -. -—-/ …. . /—.. -. ….-/ ..-. -.-. -. .-/ .- -. . .. . / .. ... / .——..- / .—. .-. . ..-. . .-. / … …. -. … …. .. . .. -. -.

(“Though he forgot, he might forget again if you prefer shoeshining.”)

He taps out in Morse as he speaks.

- …. .- . -. / .——..-

(“Thank you.”)

GM: The man blinks.

“But they don’t let me use phones or computers. Except the library’s. And it can’t connect to the internet, because they don’t want to be hacked.”

Then he taps out,

(“You’re welcome. He forgot??”)

Emil: Emil shrugs as he taps out a response,

(“I don’t know how, but he remembered I was coming though forgot why.”)

“Well, that’s a sensible decision, but perhaps a blinding one: there is almost always a way to hack a system. Protections like blocking internet use are put in place to dissuade hackers from trying. Now, it could be pretty safe, but always good to check. Do you know if Codi has a phone or a computer?”

(“He said you weren’t his renfield. Whose are you?”)

GM: “Uh. Not really, sorry. I don’t really ever leave the warren. And the Nosferatu have lots of rules about phone and internet use. But there are other computers here that connect to Shre…”

He trails off, then taps out,

(“Nobody’s. I’m not a renfield. Whose are you?”)

Emil: …ecknet. The internet private to Kindred, finishes the man’s thoughts as they drift into the actual renfield’s head.

How curious, Emil thinks. What must they hide on it. He gives him a knowing smile as he trails off.

“That’s perfectly fine. If you show me to the computers, I can show you what you can do to make sure things stay safe. You’ll have something to show to Codi by the time we’re done, I promise. Alternatively, I could teach you how to shoeshine.”

.-.. .- . -.. .. .-/ .- . -.. / -.. --… … ... . .-. .——. … / .——..- / . . --.—/—…. . -/. .. .. --.. .—..- … / . . . .—. … /—…. . / .-.. .. … .. .- .-. .-/ .. / .—. .-. . … ..—-. ..—.., he taps out.

(“Landry and Cobbler’s. You know them? Nicodemus keeps the library I presume?”)

GM: “Oh. Well, I… guess we could do either.”

.-. … .-.-.- /——-/ … -—-…. .-.-.- / … ..—/—…. .. … / .. --. … . .—-.—/—.- . . / … . . … . ..-.- / .. .——.—/ . -—-/ … ..- .-. . / .. ..-. / .——..- .——. .-. . / … ..- .—. .—. -… . .. /——/ …. .- …- . / .- .. .. . … … / …. . .-. . .-.-.-

(“Yes. To both. But this doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to have access here.”)

Emil: “I have far more to teach with cybersecurity over shoe shining, so that’s my vote.”

-. .—… . -..-/ … ..—/ ..- / . . --.—/ .. --.. .. / … .—. .-. /—…. .- . / .. / -.. -—-..—/ .. ..-. / .. / .. -—. .——.—/ .. --/ .—…. .—-/ …. . / … .- .-… / .. .——.—/ .. . . -..

(“Maybe, but u know Codi better than I do, if I don’t do what he says I’m dead.”)

“But it’s really up to you. Either lesson would be enjoyable I’d bet, in this beautiful a setting,” Emil offers, taking the moment in.

He hasn’t stopped tapping though.

.. / .——-..- .-.. .. -.-/ .. --/ .- . -.—-…. .. . -. /——-/ .—. ..—-/ .——..- / .. . / …. . .-.—… / .—.- .-/ ..—/ …- . .-. .-/ .. .- .-. . ..-. ..- .-.. / …. ..—-.- . … / -. . . -.. /——/ … ..- .—. .—. -.-.—/ . .- .. …. / -—…. . .-.

(“I wouldn’t do anything to put you in harms way. I’m very careful. Humans need to support each other.”)

GM: .. .——.—/ . -—-/ .- / …. ..—-.- . ..-.-

(“I’m not a human.”)

“Uh. Maybe shoe shining is best. Since that’s something I can show Codi. I don’t think he really cares about computer stuff.”

Emil: Well that’s… odd. He couldn’t be a Kindred, they wouldn’t treat him like that, as a slave.


He plucks another thought from the man’s mind and realizes the curious truth.

But he is a vampire, though a lesser vampire than the others. Carter spoke about those Kindred past the 13th generation whose power is far weaker than their forbearers’.

Looking at the monster, Emil knows he’s stronger than him. Better than him. But he’s just tasted a few drops of Carter’s blood. This vampire is at the peak of his potency. For him, it never gets any better than this. While Emil may eventually receive the Embrace, he’s condemned to this pathetic existence for eternity.


(“They don’t treat you any better despite that though, right? We’re just slaves to them.”)

“Shoe shining works,” Emil says, letting his duffel bag fall off his shoulder as he unpacks the freshly purchased tools.

(“I’m glad I came. Probably gets pretty lonely down here. On the bright side, what better place to be than surrounded by books. You have any favorites?”)

He taps out, giving a comforting smile.

GM: The man doesn’t even bother to verbally reply as he rapidly taps out,

.-. … ..—/—…. . /—…. .-. . . /—..- … . .—. . .-. … .-.-.- /—.-. . .- … ..- .-. . / .. … .-.. .- . -.. ..-.- / .-.. . /——-.-.—. / .. . .-.—…. ..- .-. .-.-.- /—…. . / .-.. -.-. .. / --..-. /—…. . / .-. .. . -. … .-.-.- / .. / .. --..- … ... . /—.- .———.-. . .. / .. -. /-. .. .. . … .- .-.. / .-.. ..—. .-. .—-..- .-. . / .- . -.. / …. .. …——.-. .-/ .—…. . . / .. / .-.- … / .- .-.. .. …- . .-.-.- /—…. . .-/ …. .- …- . / .- . / . ..—..- .- .-.. / … . .. --. .. / . -.. ..-.. --. / .. -.—. .-/ -..-. / .-.. . /——-.-.—. / …. . .-. . -..-/ .—-.—-. . .—. / .. . / .——.-. .. . .—-. … / .——….- --. -.. / -.-. / .——….. ..———-. / .—. .-. .. .-.. . -. -..-/ .. / …. .- …- . . .—-.—/ … . . -. / . … ... . /——-/ …- . .-. .. ..-. .-/ .—…. .. .. …. -..-/—.- .. . / -… -.-/ .- . / . ..—..- .- .-.. / -. ..—. . -… . .. -. -…. …—-.—.-.. . / … .. .-. . .—/ .—. .-. . … … ..—/ .- . -.. /-…. .—-/ … . .-. . .-.. .-/ . …- . . / -… . -. .. . … /——/ .. -…- . .-. / . …- . .-. .—-…. .. . -. /—…. . .-/ …. .- …- . .-.-.- / .——..- / .. -..- .-.. .. / … .-. . . -.. / -.-. .- .-. … / .. . /-…. .. … / .—. .-.. .- .. . .-.-.-

(“Yes! The Three Musketeers. Treasure Island. Le Morte d’Arthur. The Lord of the Rings. _I double majored in medieval literature and history when I was alive. They have an actual second edition copy of Le Morte here, Wynkyn de Worde’s 1498 or 1529 printing, I haven’t been able to verify which, made by an actual Gutenberg-style screw press! And that barely even begins to cover everything they have. You could spend years in this place.”_)

Emil: Emil’s smile can’t help but stretch at the dead man’s passion. In the speedy patter of the man’s fingers lies a tempting vivaciousness, it threatens to convince Emil that he’s human, as the pathetic nature of his first encounter with him did, though now it’s a proof of exuberance over frailty. That same signal of life is mirrored on Emil’s own face, as he hastily taps out his own response.

(“That is ridiculously cool! This is really a collector’s heaven. You know, after Hurricane Katrina I spent half of my time doing restoration and archival work in my uni’s library. There’s so much to appreciate about the way books age, and in restoration you have to preserve the different portions of the binding as much as you have to the actual pages. That’s insane that that copy of Le Morte is still around here. I can only imagine the feel of the binding itself, so delicate and yet so important.”)

He starts to unpack the materials from his bag as he quotes in code,

(“Then Sir Arthur looked on the sword, and liked it passing well. Whether liketh you better, said Merlin, the sword or the scabbard? Me liketh better the sword, said Arthur. Ye are more unwise, said Merlin, for the scabbard is worth ten of the swords, for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you”)

Emil always did fancy himself something of an actor, or perhaps it’s that he felt the spirit of a good story is something felt strongest when acted out with your own limbs.

And so as he taps out the words, the young man pulls the longest of his brushes out from the stone grey bag and holds it strong and straight as his very own Excalibur. His fingers gesticulate about the protective rubber and plastic scabbard covering the brush’s hairs, tapping out Merlin’s wise lesson onto its surface.

(“It’s a lesson from through the ages. The intrinsic power of objects like blades, brushes, or books can only truly be wielded by an owner who knows how properly to store it.”)

GM: Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap, goes the glasses-wearing man.

(“Yes, and not even just store. There’s some really interesting symbolism around the scabbard! Merlin tells him it’s worth ten Excaliburs, but Arthur’s preference and obsession remains focused on the sword while ignoring the importance of the scabbard. Celtic tradition holds that the land on the material plane is a reflection of the state of the kingship on the inner spiritual plane. So as a result, Arthur becomes a better warrior than a ruler of his kingdom—he’s more fixated with a tool of war than a tool of immortality. He’s also unable to partake in a full relationship with Guinevere, which further removes him from the feminine elemental nature of water, reflecting an imbalance within his realm.”)

(“Water’s important because the sword also arises from under the water, symbolizing the unconscious, which gives it power over Arthur. So the indiscriminate unconscious use of the sword brings disaster. The unconscious contains primal energy, which must be consciously controlled and used in the service of the kingdom, control that Arthur doesn’t possess. The scabbard brings in the aspect of consciousness in how the sword is wielded. In fact, Arthur screws up by giving the undervalued scabbard to his half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, who represents the negative feminine aspect of deceit working behind the scenes in a destructive manner. The devaluation of the positive feminine aspect of intuitive and circular insight are devaluation of the scabbard. Gareth Knight thought that the whole of the Arthurian narrative is based upon principles of polarity working, which are rarely understood, hence the ignorance of the scabbard as it relates to the sword as a complementary opposite.”)

Emil: Emil’s face is plastered with a grin he can’t wipe, he just keeps tapping as he halfheartedly calls attention to the tools of the shoe-shining trade.

“So here we have all the tools we need to get started, you ready?”

(“That’s a really cool interpretation! I think there’s also another hidden layer to this relationship between the scabbard, Excalibur, and Arthur in how we look at the sword Arthur pulls out of the churchyard stone when he demonstrates that he’s the rightful king. Curiously, Malory calls this sword Excalibur as well. This Excalibur is not taken from water but from a churchyard stone from a steel anvil. So before Arthur claims the kingship, the sword representing the right to rule is stuck in the biggest scabbard of all, the eternal Earth. And furthering this symbol of stability the sword is struck through a steel anvil, a symbol of the stability of the civilization, and given it appeared in the church grounds, it represented that the stable heart of the people was laid in the church. Arthur destroys this stability by not holding the kingdom together after he accepted the lynchpin responsibilities of the sword. Eventually, the sword representing the united people and the connection of the kingship to the church actually breaks, and what do we see? Arthur gets a new sword, almost ironically also called Excalibur, from the unstable fluid water from the hands of a woman who arguably is of the Fae, representing Arthur’s straying from the church.”)

GM: “Oh. Yes. I guess we should, shouldn’t we?”

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

(“I hadn’t considered it from that angle. A lot of the theories I’ve read posit the Excalibur from the lake as superior, because of the connection to the otherworld and land itself, that’s its own topic to go into, but also how it ties into pre-Christian Celtic myths. You can find the same Arthurian narrative in stories of young sacrificial gods such as Oengus, Merlin Emrys, and Segda Saerlabraid. The young gods, who serve in a sacrificial role, all follow the story cycle of a mysterious conception, fosterage, and pre-destined fate. ")

(“The sacred king isn’t human or divine, but connected and sanctioned by the elements through his relationship with the goddess of the land, aka the Lady of the Lake, aka the Celtic concept of sovereignty. Their sacred union is a key feature of Celtic kingship. The sacred king doesn’t only have a sacred obligation to the land, but also to magically empowering objects which he needs to guard and revere. The symbolism of the Hallows of the Land is its own topic too, but one of their defining features is that they’re given as gifts by the goddess of sovereignty, the Lady again, to hold in trust for the entire kingdom.”)

(“With the sword and the stone, Arthur isn’t bequeathed his sword. He just takes it. And only a sword, representing a tool of war, not the scabbard that confers immortality.”)

(“But then again, depending on your audience, the sword from stone myth might be the ‘better’ myth. It emphasizes ties to the church, Arthur’s personal might, and the divine exceptionalism of kings. Arthur does what no lesser man can do, and it’s easy to interpret as being by the grace of God. Monarchs and the Catholic Church would both be more interested in promoting that myth. The myth around the sword received from the Lady of the Lake, on the other hand, emphasizes a king’s duty and responsibility to his people, as well as continuity with Britain’s pre-Christian past. I’d be curious if you saw that version promoted more after the Magna Carta.”)

Emil: “All right,” Emil says, unfolding a pair of plastic stools, sitting down on one before the oh-so human vampire. He asks, “Why don’t you put your boot up there. I’ll show you a step, then you repeat it on me. Does that work with you?”

He continues to tap tap tap into the plastic stool.

(“Just as in any work of fiction, there are a thousand ways to read the story. I think that monarchs and Catholic’s usage of La Morte as a story exemplifying that divine exceptionalism of kings is the same level of tone deafness that you find in American politicians playing Born in the USA during campaign rallies. Malory termed himself a knight prisoner, and he spent his life passed from prison to prison without ever seeing a trial. He was living during a time of great instability and fragmenting of the central power in Britain, and the Arthur he wrote was a king facing similar levels of instability. Arthur reaches his peak success in battle early in the book, a success he never quite reaches again. The book follows a narrative of slow collapse of the Round Table, Arthur’s marriage, the Grail quest, with Arthur dying at the end. As a prisoner, Malory wrote from a perspective closer to ours as slaves than Arthur’s as a king.”)

Emil retrieves a broad tin from the duffel bag and twists the top off. He then takes out a stiff-haired brush and moves it along the off-white surface of the tin’s contents.

(“What’s your name by the way?”)

GM: “O-Okay.”

The glasses-wearing man puts his foot up. The boot is in terrible condition. It’s covered in so much grime and so many stains that Emil can’t begin to guess what color it originally was. The toe is coming apart from the midsole, which makes it possible to glimpse part of the man’s actual toe. One of the laces is shorter than the other, leaving the man unable to fully tie the boot. The sole is uneven in places as though worn down. The moldering shoe looks ready to fall apart under Emil’s ministration.

(“Well, the War of Roses wasn’t really as long as 32 years, most of that time was peaceful. But you’re right. It was the heyday of so-called ‘bastard feudalism’ and you can see how Malory would enjoy writing about a king who embodied the old chivalric ideals. But at the same time, with so many flawed kings on the throne or losing their thrones, you can see how that would color his writing too. All stories are products of their times.”)

Emil’s question seems to briefly throw his tapping off.

(“Elliot Glasswell. What’s yours?”)

Emil: Elliot, he recognizes that name. Chen had mentioned something about an Elliot who attended Rice. Really sad story. Bright student just up and quit right before graduation about eight years back. There was a professor there who was really bummed out about it, but Emil doesn’t recall the name. He’ll have to ask later.

(“Emil. Emil Jonas.”)

Emil looks concernedly at the dilapidated boot, but after a few moments of tutting and delicately surveying its form, he looks up to Elliot with a Cheshire smile, “Don’t worry. We’ll have your shoe looking fresh off the shelf by the time we’re done with it… or at least fresh off the discount rack.”

The hobbyist shoeshine starts his work by untying, removing the man’s laces, and placing them in a small plastic bag. Digging into his duffel bag, he retrieves a spray bottle and spritzes its contents over the laces, before zipping the bag shut and shaking it vigorously, causing the liquid to foam up as bubbles occlude the view of the laces.

“Now, any shoeshine job starts by removing the laces and pulling out the tongue. We’re gonna let those laces sit in that cleaning solution until we’re done. In case you were curious, it’s made of soap for dirt removal, isopropyl alcohol for germ-killing, and a light perfume.”

GM: “Uh… actually, I don’t know if this is a good idea…” Elliot says cautiously. “Maybe we should do your shoes.”

“If you’re going back to the surface anyway.”

Emil: “Of course,” he says, his smile still present though diminished.

Tap tap tap.

(“I could waterproof them for you, lasts six month and isn’t visible to the naked eye. I also got another pair of laces in the bag, you think he would notice if you could actually tie your shoe? Could also sew a black patch under the hole. More comfortable, but it’ll still have the look of that tear.”)

GM: Tap. Tap.

(“Well… okay. If they can’t tell.”)

Emil: Of course they won’t. Emil didn’t spend all that time twisting his spine against the hard coils sticking out of the local shoeshine’s street chairs letting his mind run empty. Sure, it was a break from the schoolwork, a little bit of a luxury, but Emil has suffered too many gaps in his memory to let his mind run blank for even a moment.

And so all he could do was pay attention.

Those shoeshines all had their specialties. Hippolyte Broussard was more bark than bite when it came to the actual shining, but that’s no shame when you know how many people that bark of his drew. First he’d tear them down, remove that casing of dirt and dry polish they’ve been walking in for too long. It’s quick and harsh like the cheap saddle soap he uses. It’s not hard to get a city full of guilty Catholics to hop into your professional confessional when you tell them their soles are on the line. After all, cleanliness is next to godliness and time is money. In a city like New Orleans, no soul is fully clean, and most are far from it. It’s a simple calculus, five bucks for a mirror shine is cheaper penance than thirty Hail Marys.

And by the end of it, he’d have you feeling just about ready to step up the staircase to heaven and take your spot sitting comfy right next to the throne of God Himself. The way he’d butter you up, you’d think you deserve that spot too. That wax polish he would so delicately apply to shoes could fill in all imperfection, and those flaws it couldn’t he would shine into a mirror so perfect that the only thing to judge looking at the flaw is your own sorry reflection.

But for Elliot, for the work that matters tonight, there’s no preamble nor exalting conclusion, no mirror shine to look forward to nor any cutting down or buttering up. The dirt has to stay on this time, for both of their sakes. He can only hope Elliot’s a good person; his soles won’t show that purity, so his soul will have to do.

The tin of soap he was circling with the round brush sits unused on the floor, it’ll have to wait for his boots. He’ll have to make this quick if he’s to teach Elliot a proper lesson.

Using a ruler as a metric, Emil measures the perforation in the seam of the midsole and cuts out a thin strip of scrap leather covered on one side with a soft black cloth to match. A quick movement of a knife cuts the inner seam leaving two exposed threads to stitch into. He matches the thread as best as he can with the nylon selections he brought along before threading it onto a hook and getting to work. When he’s finished stitching, the hole still appears to remain in the splayed outer seam, but instead of his toe being open to the elements, it is covered in a protective inner layer.

It’s a light scrub with the rough bristles of a brick shaped brush to loosen the years old polish, but he stops before the caked dirt comes off in any notable quantity. The goal isn’t to remove but to perforate the layers, so that when he next applies the neutral wax to the leather it holds. His fingers nimbly dance around the shoe, massaging different quantities of the soft material depending on the fragility of the region. The layers pile on and on, but without buffing nor dye to the polish, the shoe looks as dull and dirty as it did when Emil started.

The last step begins when Emil rolls a fresh pair of laces in the dirt of the ground until they resemble the ones he started to wash. He breaks the aglets, frays the ends and cuts one end almost as short as the original, but just long enough to tie if Elliot wished.

With one last motion, Emil ties the job off with a knot.

GM: “Huh. Wow. That’s a really good job,” Elliot says aloud, his bespectacled eyes attentively following Emil’s work every step of the way. The illumination in the library is terrible: which is to say, there’s almost none to speak of. Emil can’t help but note how well he seems to be seeing in the dark. This would be a hard job if he hadn’t been able to.

Emil: That truth reminds him of the blood he received from his kindred spirit. Each gift is a blessing, a sign that he steps ever closer to the way of the Kenites who guarded Moses and his nation. First came the capacity to listen to the words of others left unsaid. Then the empowerment of his gut instinct. Now the veil of shadow is lifted from his sight.

“Simple steps, practiced incessantly in my free time. We’ll have you try them as well, and more, to get my boots looking better than brand new. And after that, Codi’s as well.”

He tap tap taps away, smiling softly.

(“I’d like to be your friend, Elliot. We can support each other. Learn from each other. The only impediment is my inability to come here. Is there any way we could impress on Nicodemus the value of allowing me access here?”)

GM: “Yeah, o-okay. We will.”

Elliot looks a little nervous at the mention of Codi’s boots, but he doesn’t look at all certain what to ‘say’ to Emil after the more experienced shoe-shiner taps out his message in morse. He looks simultaneously apprehensive, hopeful, and then glum before he slowly taps back,

(“Oh, well… that’d only be if your domitor said so, probably talked to him… and the Nosferatu can be really paranoid…”)

Emil: “All right,” he says, pressing his palms into his legs as he rises. “Your turn in the hot seat.”

Emil thinks for a moment before tapping his response.

(“You know Nicodemus closely I presume. Is there anything in particular my domitor could pitch to him that could override his paranoia?”)

GM: Elliot regards Emil’s foot.

“Uh, where should I start…?”

Tap. Tap.

(“If it helped him, maybe? He cares a lot about knowledge. Or helped his clan or covenant. Those things and being Jewish are all he seems to really care about.”)

Emil: The words ‘clan’ and ‘covenant’ make him pause, but at the word ‘Jewish,’ Emil stops in his tracks as his eyes prick sharp with curiosity.

“…first things first you’ll want to remove the shoe laces and like I was telling you earlier, shake them in a plastic bag together with the cleaning solution I described,” he says with a new certainty to his tone.

As he’s retrieving an open box of Ziplocs and a spray bottle from the duffel bag, he pulls a secondary zipper open just enough to reveal the plain cloth kippah inside to Elliot.

“Make sure to shake it well,” he says, smiling. But more than smiling; tapping.

(“So he styles himself a modern Naqdimon ben Gurion, then. That’s a Talmudic deep cut. Looks like he and I share very—very—similar interests. And I might just have something he’d be interested in.”)

GM: Elliot gets the bag out, removes Emil’s shoelaces, and zips them in. He gives the bag a good shake.

Tap. Tap.

(“Well… be careful. He is isn’t like the Nicodemus from the Bible. Or the Talmud.”)

Emil: That has Emil’s face falling somewhat, but he doesn’t stop the instructions.

“Now you’ll want to clean the boots themselves. First pull the tongues of the shoes outwards, like so,” he says, shimmying one out of its place. “You want to clean as much of the surface as possible.”

“Now watch closely,” he says, retrieving the tin full of the pasty white substance and running a circular brush overtop it in small cycles.

“This is saddle soap, good for cleaning any leather you can find. That motion gets the stiff brushhairs as covered in the stuff as can be. When you have enough, you take the brush and perform the same motions on the shoe.”

“Alternate until the shoe’s covered. Then you take this rag and rub it off. Again, circles. Rinse and repeat a good few times until the shoe’s free of any dirt.”

He taps quickly before handing the tools to the slave, his brow furrowed in disquiet.

(“What sort of Nicodemus is he then? What covenant does he ascribe to beyond God’s?”)

GM: Elliot pulls out the other tongue, takes the brush, and runs it across the surface of the soap tin in clockwise motions. Once the brush is good and white, he does the same with it across the shoe’s surface.

“Is there, ah, a reason circular motions across the shoe are better than back and forth motions?” he asks.

Tap. Tap.

(“Just… be careful. You’re a renfield, and a lot of Kindred can be the same way towards them as Codi.”)

Emil: “There sure is. The brush is circular as well, so circular motions make for the greatest contact surface of bristle to leather. And circular motions tend to mean more focused application, and less streaking.”

Emil can read between the lines. Elliot’s too scared of his master to speak direct ill of him, even through coded communication. And he definitely has no qualms with Elliot suffering, given he lets Codi abuse him freely.

But he wants to get back here again, to see the library. At the very least to have a friend he can talk to about these impossible realities. There has to be a way.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

(“I’m a very careful person, Elliot. What if I gave him a gift through my domitor? Something worthy of the library?”)

GM: “Okay. That makes sense.”

Elliot keeps brushing.

(“Well, he’d like that. A lot. He’s in charge of the library. Just… expect him to be more grateful to your domitor, probably, than you.”)

Emil: “That’s very good,” Emil approves, holding out a clean rag. “Now you’ll want to rub all of that soap and loosened dirt onto this. Make sure you focus on the ridges and crevices especially closely.”

(“Grateful enough to let me visit you down here and study if my domitor requested it in return? Would it help my case if I could demonstrate a deep understanding of Jewish law and mysticism?”)

He leans in.

Tap. Tap.

(“Cause I could totally do that.”)

GM: Elliot takes the rag and repeats the clockwise motions across Emil’s shoe, lingering on the aforementioned areas.

(“Maybe? I guess it’d depend on the book and how you make your pitch and… what mood he’s in. But that’d probably help. He likes Jewish mysticism.”)

When Emil moves closer, Elliot drops the rag and flinches away. There’s a brief awkward pause before he picks it back up and resumes cleaning the shoe.

(“He’s a scholar. Which I guess you might’ve already guessed,”) the other slave taps out.

Emil: “Oh,” he says reflexively. “Don’t worry, you’ve got this,” he says, sitting back up.

Tap. Tap.

(“Sorry. Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”)

GM: “Th-thanks.” Elliot switches to Emil’s other shoe.

Emil: Tap tap tap.

(“You’re quick on the pickup here, we won’t give Codi a chance to be anything but satisfied. The trick I think is to surprise him with a grand finale. He’s always gonna talk shit about your first pass, so don’t make it too spectacular. You just explain that the good part is just about to come. That’s when you hit the shoe with a speedy mirror shine. Blows everyone away how quick it comes on with the right technique.”)

“Exactly like that. You see how the cracks are more visible now? There, on the toe, a mild gouge revealed itself. That’s normal, you want to ensure the client of that. You’ll be rejuvenating those spots in the next steps.”

(“That’s the show and dance I did last night, and I didn’t even give him a mirror shine, just a regular one. You’ll have the proper tools with you.”)

GM: Elliot performs the same clockwise cleaning with the rag.

(“Thanks. That makes sense.”)

The taps come slower.

(“I guess you’re right he wouldn’t like the first pass, no matter what.”)

Emil: “All right, that’s looking good. Why don’t you start off the prepping process before you start shining.” Emil retrieves a smaller red and black can labelled with an unintelligible cursive font.

Elliot can’t share anything. He knows that. Elliot gets scared when he brings up Codi. He knows that. Elliot a bright student is reduced to cleaning a brute’s shoes because of how much they scare him. He sees the fresh scars plain on Elliot’s face. But Emil has more questions, and he needs answers.

So he asks another dangerous question.

Oh so nonchalantly.

Don’t worry about it, Elliot.

It’ll all be okay.

(“By the way, what were you doing at TMC last night with Codi?”)

And just like that, he returns to his instructions.

“This is leather cream. You’ll want to apply this fairly often, about once a month to make sure the leather in your boots stays hydrated. That’ll help prevent any further cracking. For now, this will work to rehydrate the cracks of the shoe in a spot treatment.”

He demonstrates by taking a thinner rag, tying it taut over his finger, rubbing it slowly over the darker substance before rubbing it into the gouge.

GM: Elliot opens the can, but stops at Emil’s question. He gives a half-glum, half-apologetic look.

Tap. Tap.

(“Sorry, I… shouldn’t talk about that… you know how it is…”)

After a moment,

(“But I could tell you about the mosaics, when we’re done here, they’re all really interesting…”)

Emil: Emil can feel the empty air stirring in the subterranean palace. It licks past his uncovered skin and raises the hairs on the back of his neck.

It laughs softly as it brushes its cheek against his, and whispers something unmentionable through cupped hands into Emil’s ear.

’Don’t stop pushing. He’ll break soon.’

And just like that, it’s gone. The breeze dies. His throat’s dry. There’s someone watching them, of course there is. But no one here knows how hard he’s capable of pushing. No one knows what he did to his mother. The voice is just in his head, and he’s not sure if that’s any more comforting than the alternative.

“J-just tie this taut around your finger and try it out,” Emil starts again after an inordinately long pause. He holds out the thin black cloth, freshly stained with a dab of shoe cream.

Tap tap.

(“I’d really like that actually. They were the first thing that caught my eyes when the hood came off.”)

GM: Elliot looks at Emil when he falls silent, but doesn’t speak up. Only a few seconds later, the other slave quickly averts his gaze and continues cleaning Emil’s shoe.

When the ghoul speaks again, Elliot just as quickly does so and ties the cloth around his finger.

“Is there a particular part of the shoe I should most concentrate on…?”

Tap. Tap.

(“You’ll love them, the craftsmanship is exquisite. They’re all hand-made and created entirely from memory, without any visual reference.”)

Emil: “Leather cream is good to apply all over the shoe, and like I said it’s a good idea to apply it every month or so, but you should focus on the problem areas first, i.e. cracks, gouges, and creases.”

Tap tap.

(“That’s nuts. And the figures are so vivid. What’s the source material?”)

GM: “Oh. That’s right. You’d said, the problem areas. Sorry.” Elliot sets to work on the cracks.

Tap. Tap.

(“It’s a bit of a story. Well, each one is its own story. I should really explain when we’re done here, so you can look at them up close as I narrate.”)

Emil: “All right, now you’ll want to get a lighter layer on the entire shoe. This is quick work but if you get used to doing it, it can really improve the lifespan of your shoes. Another benefit of this moisturizing is that it temporarily softens the leather. Take a shoe that’s bent out of shape or has been crushed and apply this cream and it’ll be very malleable. What you do then is store a shoe tree inside it overnight.”

Digging through his bag a moment, he retrieves peculiar device. It’s made of sections of stiff cedar carved to fill and fit different parts of the shoe. The sections are connected with an adjustable metal skeleton. “In fact, I brought one here to show you. The cedar helps pull out any moisture absorbed by the inner portions of the shoe. After a night of being tightly filled by the tree, the shoe returns to form.”

GM: “Huh. I thought moisturizing was just something people did to their skin.”

It doesn’t sound like Elliot ever did it.

Emil: “Well, sure, but any skin needs moisture to keep from cracking. Even if it was formerly in the possession of an animal,” he responds.

Elliot ain’t alone. Most people don’t treat their varied skins right either.

GM: “Well, I guess that makes sense.” A pause. “Uh, are you going to remove your shoe, so I can…?”

Emil: Smiling, he responds. “Oh no, that’s something you’d do when you’re done with your shoes for the night. Shoe trees need more time to do their magic than a normal shining session lasts. For now, the next step is to take a pair of wide brushes to work in that cream. Use the length of the brush to get near total coverage of each shoe with each stroke.”

He retrieves a pair for him to use as he returns the tree back to its place.

GM: “Is there a reason you want simultaneous coverage, vs. still getting the same total area with a smaller brush?”

Elliot still does so and scrubs along Emil’s cream-lathered shoes. His swift motions don’t make him feel at all new to cleaning with a brush, at least.

Emil: “Couple reasons,” Emil says, looking down towards Elliot working. “Unlike soap, cream actually affects the color of the leather for a non-negligible amount of time. Since it had to be applied in small regions by hand, the amount of cream on the shoe ends up differing by a large enough margin to be noticeably different in color should the cream be worked in exactly where it was applied. The large brushes, when moved in long, swift strokes, effectively even out the layers of cream and therefore prevent any unsightly color splotches.”

“It also makes the work go by quicker. With the soap, we were worried about streaking, but since the cream is thicker and the leather readily absorbs it, that is less of an issue.”

“In any case, we’ll finish off the cream application by wrapping a clothe taut around the shoe with both hands and then, acting as a pulling, use belt friction to buff any streaked remnants away and leave the surface of the shoe prepped for shining.”

GM: “Ah, that makes a lot of sense.” A pause. “You said you were a computer person, can I ask where you leaned this?”

Elliot does as directed, wrapping the rag taut around Emil’s shoe with both hands, then buffing off the leftover cream.

Emil: “Well that’s a bit of a story, but I’ll share,” he offers, nodding approvingly at Elliott’s work. “I used to work as a teaching assistant during my stint at university. The pay was pretty slim, especially so after you took out tuition. But everyone needs to splurge somehow, gotta have luxury or at least some more affordable simulacrum of it. For me, that was my Sunday morning shoeshine. Everytime I got up from those chairs I felt like a million bucks. With how talkative those shoe shines were, it wasn’t long before I started picking up the craft myself. Now, I got a whole notebook full of techniques, and regardless of the rest of my outfit, my shoes always look perfect,” he boasts.

GM: “Oh, that’s neat. Probably the best part of your outfit you could have looking good, honestly,” Elliot says as he buffs Emil’s other shoe. “I read an article once that your shoes are the first part of you which a lot of people judge. Supposedly you can judge 90 percent of someone’s personal characteristics just by looking at their shoes. Age, gender, and income are probably obvious, but even things like political affiliation, emotional state, relative introversion or extroversion, agreeableness, and other personality traits.”

Emil: “And that, my friend, is why we like to do a mirror shine. When they look at your shoes for a read, they’ll be staring at their own faces. There is, typically, no quality of the other more esteemed than likeness to one’s self,” Emil responds.

GM: “That makes a lot of sense, actually,” Elliot says as he finishes with the rag. “So what’s next, the shining?”

Emil: “Right on the money. So far we’ve cleaned the shoe, conditioned and moisturized the leather, and filled out some of the minuscule cracks with cream. That sets up a prime canvas for shining. Now, the name of the game for mirror shines is specular reflection. That means we want all light that hits within a local neighborhood of a point on the leather to reflect mostly in the same direction. Normally, leather looks matte. That’s because the reflections are diffuse, meaning points close to each other on the leather reflect light in varying directions. This is caused by minuscule roughness in the leather.”

“You might wonder what roughness I’m referring to,” he says, presenting Elliot with a view of the skin on the back of his spindle-fingered hand, “but if you look closely at skin, you’ll see that its separated into a matrix of overlapping scale-like clumps of skin cells. Leather preparation causes those to shrink somewhat, but on the scale of light rays, the roughness is not negligible. The question is, how do we handle that roughness?”

GM: Elliot listens attentively.

“Can we at least make the roughness more consistent in its pattern and direction?” he asks.

Emil: “With a fine enough tool, sure. But the level of precision you’d need to get a smooth top layer is prohibitive. Instead, consider a dilapidated road, strewn with cracks, and pocked with gravel filled potholes. How would you turn that rough road into a perfectly smooth one?”

GM: “Well, like you say, the level of precision you’d need to get a perfectly smooth road can be prohibitive. If you can’t re-pave the entire road, you’d probably make do with filling in the potholes and using crack filler for the rest.”

“Is filling in the shoe’s cracks essentially what the buffing wax does?”

Emil: “You’re on the right track, yes. But let me clarify, I was implying that it’s difficult to use a tool to shave down roughness using subtractive methods. What is feasible, however, is using additive methods. For a road, you could repave or whitetop it, meaning covering the broken asphalt with concrete. For a shoe, you first, as you say, fill in the cracks with a waxy polish, then you keep applying the material until it forms an even surface on top of the shoe. Since the wax is mixed with turpentine, the heat of pressing in into the shoe makes it flexible enough to be smoothed. Instead of smoothing the leather, we coat the leather and smooth the coating. That’ll give an initial shine that you see on newly purchased shoes. After that comes the mirror shine.”

GM: “That makes sense. I didn’t realize there were so many types of polishing.”

Emil: “Well, it’s like that with everything, isn’t it? Looks simple on the surface, but if you look close enough, there’s intricacy to spare.”

Emil’s eyes drift upwards, towards the complex murals hidden in this subterranean library.

“Under the surface, nothing is ever completely smooth.”

GM: The nearest mosaic depicts a male creature of medium height and build. His head is lopsided, crushed in on the left side, and part of his jaw is missing, revealing dark and rotten-looking teeth on the right side. His nose is little more than a flattened blob, and his whole body is bent forward and twisted. His skin hangs loosely on his frame and has a peculiar yellow-gray coloration with splotches of brown on it. His hair, though, remains dark and wavy and his eyes are a translucent green. He’s garbed in a long cloak and hood that conceals as much of him as possible.

“That one is Prince Zvi, one of Nicodemus’ ancestors,” says Elliot. “His grandsire by… a lot of greats.”

“The story goes that he was the son of a rabbi and wanted to be one himself. But after his father died, he was forced to apprentice himself to a kosher butcher in Prague’s Jewish ghetto, so that he might support his aging mother.”

“But his love for learning never died, and he met with scholars at the university to receive lessons as often as he could, hoping to still become a rabbi himself someday. He grew up strong and tall, and handsome too. Mothers throughout the ghetto all thought he was an attractive marriage prospect for their daughters.”

“But one night when he was returning home from a lesson with one of his teachers, a gang of angry and drunken youths were rampaging through the ghetto, beating and killing any Jews they found on the streets.”

“He shouted for them to stop and tried to drive them off, but there were too many. They crushed in his head, smashed in his nose, tore off his jaw, broke his hands, and snapped his spine. Then the laughing gang turned elsewhere for sport and left him to die in alleyway.”

“Then he heard a voice, asking if he wanted revenge on the Christian youths. He managed a barely audible ‘no’ through broken teeth.”

“Then the voice asked, ‘Would you defend others from such?’ and all he could do was nod.”

“And so Josef Zvi was brought into Clan Nosferatu by Yehuda, childe of Tetya Zhanna, childe of Baba Yaga, childe of Absimilard.”

Emil: Emil can see the story play out in the shifting shadows which dance around the mosaic. The boy growing to a man, studying the holy books as he goes, and the injustice struck upon him by Christians.

Even now, looking upon the mere impression of his kin, he’s struck with a growing anger at what they stole from him. Not just his body in the day, but the wretched form he was remembered in. There’s no doubt in Emil’s mind about who did this: Catholics.

And yet he didn’t seek revenge, he only sought the defense of his people. Emil’s people. The true ideal of a Kenite.

GM “He defended the Jews of Prague’s ghetto against Kindred and kine for generations. He would allow none to harm them.”

“The Ventrue prince of the city grew tired of this, and ordered Josef to open the ghetto to feeding by all of the city’s Kindred. Knowing this would condemn many of his people to death, Josef refused.”

“The prince sent his ghouls to kill the Nosferatu in his haven as he slept. But they arrived to find him gone, in the middle of the day!”

Emil: “How?” Emil asks softly, his eyes still glued to the ceiling.

GM: “‘How’,” Elliot declares dramatically, “is that Josef had long known this day would come, and had prepared for it. Unknown to all, he had built a secret passageway between his haven and Prague Castle, where Prince Rudolf slept. As the sun rose above, Josef wearily crept into the prince’s bedchambers, armed with a wooden stake and butcher’s cleaver.”

“The Ventrue did not sleep alone, however, and was defended by many guards. Upon seeing the Nosferatu, they bellowed their deathless master’s name and fell upon him in droves.”

“Josef cut down each of them with his butcher’s cleaver, but not before the sounds of battle roused Prince Rudolf from his daytime slumber.”

Emil: Emil feels a great tension in his chest as the story reaches its climax. Outnumbered and exhausted by the sun and the guards. It would be a miracle to win. But he has to.

“And then?” he asks.

GM: Elliot holds his holds together and raises them high, as if drawing a sword.

“The furious prince took up his sword and did battle with the rabbi’s son. The Ventrue was nobleborn and had been trained since boyhood in the arts of war by the finest men-at-arms. Josef had only used his cleaver to slaughter livestock, yet he fought like the Israelite heroes of old, knowing his people’s fate rested upon his shoulders—a medieval David against Goliath.”

“Yet, the cramped confines of the castle gave this David no room to fire his humble sling. For not only did Rudolf enjoy the privileges of a high birth, he was centuries older and even closer to Caine than Yehuda’s childe, for the Blood ran strong and pure in olden nights.”

“Rudolf shattered the butcher’s cleaver beneath his priceless sword, and then repeated the same mutilations the gang of youths had inflicted upon Josef. He smashed the Nosferatu’s head, shattered his nose, broke his hands, and snapped his spine. Finally, he hewed off Josef’s feet, so the lowly Nosferatu might grovel before the Kingship Clan for what remained of his unlife.”

“Prince Rudolf laughed and told Josef that he had sealed his people’s fate. They would pay for his audacity for generations. Jewish blood would flow through the ghetto like a river.”

Emil: Qáyin. I knew it!

And as Elliot continues to talk, he shakes his head, unbelieving.

“No…” he nearly spits out through a whisper.

GM: “He then told the Nosferatu to kiss his boots,” Elliot goes on, “and said that if he found Josef’s begging sufficiently amusing, he would perhaps grant him a faster, cleaner death. Perhaps.”

“Josef torturously dragged himself forward and planted his broken lips upon the Ventrue’s feet. He could see his humiliated visage reflected in countless prisms along the jewels lining the the prince’s glorious sword.”

Emil: He can’t help but imagine Codi’s face in the unportrayed Rudolf’s place. Can’t help but imagine himself or Elliot cut down that same way.

Ventrue. The word is like poison in his mouth. He lets it sit there.

GM: “Rudolf leaned forward, smirking, to give voice to some final taunt—and as he did, Josef seized the Ventrue’s weapon with a last, desperate burst of strength, and decapitated him with his own sword! The prince’s head sailed through the air, its expression forever frozen in shock and horror!” Elliot leaps to his feet, swinging an invisible sword in his arms.

“Josef collapsed from his wounds and slept through what remained of the day.”

“When night fell, the city’s entire Kindred court had turned out to Prague Castle in attendance, anticipating the formal announcement of the new hunting grounds open in the Jewish ghetto.”

“Gasps sounded throughout the crowd as Josef Zvi emerged at the head of the former prince’s ghouls, dressed in finery, the Ventrue’s priceless sword belted to his side.”

“Josef then announced to the stunned Kindred that as his first act as prince of their city, Prague’s Jewish quarter was now forbidden to all vampires in perpetuity—upon pain of the same fate he’d visited upon the last Kindred who sought to feed there.”

“And so began the 700-year reign of Prince Zvi.”

Emil: And far quicker than the bitter uncertainty grew in Emil’s gut, a swell of faith spreads through him, the twist is exhilarating, and it shows on his face, so full of life.

“Now that is a prince.”

GM: “Yeah,” Elliot says, sitting back down. “It’s a great underdog story. The sewer rats here all really like it, even the ones who aren’t Jewish.”

Emil: “ברוך השם.”

(“Praise God.”)

GM: “That’s Hebrew, isn’t it? I’m not Jewish myself, but I’ve heard Nicodemus speak it.”

Emil: “That it is. The universal language. The phrase I said literally means ‘bless God,’ but is used in the same way as ‘praise God.’ His hand is so clear in that story. What a blessing. And it ties so deeply into the legends surrounding the Jews of Prague.”

GM: “Yeah, I think there’s actually some other stories that tie him to the Golem of Prague.”

“But I don’t know those. I’ve just heard they exist.”

Emil: “It’s so interesting, because the Golem was made by another Yehuda to defend the Jews in just the same way. It’s one of the foremost stories about the power of studying practical Kabbalah.”

GM: “And his sire is even named as Yehuda, too. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be the same figure or not, though.”

“What’s so fascinating about Kindred history is that while it’s much more poorly documented, you could, if you went to Prague, potentially talk to witnesses who remember Josef personally.”

“He was supposed to have been destroyed during World War II by the Nazis.”

Emil: “To be able to talk to someone, even indirectly, who has seen seven centuries pass. I have no words. But it’s a real shame he didn’t survive to see the establishment of the Jewish state. He embodied the strength of those who would build it. The virtue of no longer going like sheep to slaughter.”

GM: “I think he died as part of the Czech resistance. So at least he died the way he lived. Well, unlived.”

Emil: “And seven hundred years of strength isn’t anything to sniff at either.”

Tearing his gaze away from the hero above, Emil continues, “Let’s finish these boots up quick before you tell me about the rest. Yeah?”

GM: “I think closer to eight hundred, actually, as he wasn’t totally new when he killed the prince. But yeah, let’s.”

Emil: Emil demonstrates to Elliot the few remaining steps in the shining process by his own hand on one of the boots, leaving the other for him to copy his teacher’s motions.

First comes a generous application of a dark polish. The substance, which as Emil explains, is mainly comprised of Carnauba wax, and yet, as he presents the open tin for Elliot to touch, feels significantly more malleable than he would expect a wax.

“The secret to that spreadability is the turpentine solvent I had mentioned. You’ll find that the texture is quite greasy, that’s caused by the lanolin, the purpose of which is to stop the turpentine from evaporating away before the polish is spread. Cheaper polishes use naphtha in place of turpentine. You can tell the difference, even if you can’t read the label, just by smelling. If it uses turpentine, it’ll smell like Vick’s VapoRub.”

For this first application, covering the entire shoe is done with the very same type of circular applicator brush that was used to scrub on the saddle soap. Emil guides Elliot as the bright storyteller repeats his motions.

GM: Elliot does so. “That’s convenient to be able to tell an inferior product through smell alone.”

Emil: “Most shoeshines have both on hand. If you ever get the opportunity to get your shoes shined by someone on the street, you can make sure you aren’t getting swindled out of a better deal.”

Waiting a short time for it to dry, Emil then instructs Elliot to use the horse hair brush to take off any excess. “Just the same as before with the cream, we’ll use a brush with quick long strokes.” And after, buffing with a cloth all over.

“And with that, we’ve made a relatively smooth buffer of wax over the whole shoe. Next step is to start the bulling—that’s another word for mirror shining.”

Emil takes out a box of gloves and puts on a pair, “just so we don’t stain our hands,” as he explains. Using a pair of gloved fingers, Emil presses into the polish and then using quick circles over the toecap and the heel, applies several thin layers of polish.

“We wanna be conservative with the polish now. This is the critical moment that will decide how clear the mirror will come out. An excessive amount of polish will lead to a cloudier finish that will take longer to achieve than doing it properly.”

Overtop the toecap and heel there’s a dull but notable shine. The area is also notably darker than the surrounding leather. Emil blends the contrasting line by pressing into it with his thumb.

GM: Elliot slips on the latex gloves and does as instructed, applying the polish layers to the other shoe.

“I guess if some is good more isn’t always better.”

Emil: “Careful now, that might be construed as heresy in this state,” he kids.

The final step of the shining process is just as simple as the previous. Friction from pressing lightly in small circles with a cold, slightly damp cloth melts the top layer of polish just enough to increase the smoothness of the surface.

To begin, Emil retrieves a small container of ice in cold water, twists open the cap, and rests a singular cube on the ground, using the cap as a miniature bowl. To that he spritzes a small amount of rubbing alcohol, which he assures Elliot will evaporate. Finally, he takes a very smooth length of cloth, wraps it tightly around a pair of fingers and gets to work.

The process is rote to Emil. Touch the fingers to the ice cube, then very lightly touch the surface of the polish tin. Circular motions over the toe cap and the heel. He has Elliot match every step.

“You see how it’s getting foggier? Don’t worry about that, that’s a good sign. Means in just a little more work you’ll be able to see your own face in those toecaps.”

Soon enough, after an extra dab of polish here or water there when it gets too dry, the work is finished.

GM: Elliot faithfully watches and repeats those steps on Emil’s other shoe, buffing the surface to a similarly mirror-like sheen.

“Almost seems a shame to polish it here, when it could get dirty on the way up. Is too much polishing like this ever bad for a shoe?”

Emil: “Actually, one of the benefits of polishing is that it waterproofs the leather. My shoes will be much cleaner when I leave than they otherwise would be,” Emil responds, looking on proudly at his student’s success.

" If you get lazy and skip the preliminaries like cleaning the shoe first, you’ll eventually create a thick and brittle layer of wax that will leave the leather to desiccate. On the whole, though, no. If you polish your shoes appropriately and moisturize them even more regularly, they’ll be in good shape far longer than without."

“You did a great job with these.”

GM: “Oh, so the wax will essentially trap all the crud underneath it against the shoe. That makes sense.”

Elliot looks uncomfortable for a moment at Emil’s praise. He gives a nod in response, then says, “Thanks.”

Emil: “Well, if you cleaned it well the first time, there would be no crud underneath. The issue would be that not periodically removing the wax layer will starve the base surface of oxygen and stop you from moisturizing or conditioning the leather. As I said, that leads to desiccation,” he corrects calmly.

Emil seems satisfied enough with that brief response. “Now, what can you tell me about that one,” he says, pointing to another beautiful mosaics.

GM: “Right, I mean if you hadn’t cleaned it first. That would just trap the crud underneath the wax you put on, wouldn’t it?”

Emil: “It would, yes. It could also risk cracking the layers of wax above, which isn’t a good look neither.”

GM: “Okay. That’s what I’d thought. But, that one…”

Elliot’s gaze follows Emil’s finger to the next mosaic:

There’s more than one of the figure, too.

The detail work is meticulous, especially on the second one. The individual mosaic tiles aren’t perfectly even, and some are more pitted than others, but there must be thousands of them. He can’t guess how long it might have taken to put together.

“You might be able to guess who she is already,” says Elliot.

Emil: “She’d be hard to mistake. That’s Baba Yaga. You mentioned Baba Yaga in Prince Zvi’s lineage, but did you really mean the Baba Yaga?” Emil asks curiously.

GM: “That’s who the Nosferatu all seem to believe she is. The Little Grandmother. The Iron Hag. The real Mother Russia.”

“On dark nights, the iron-toothed hag would fly across the skies of Russia on her magic mortar, and under her shadow milk spoiled and babies were born dead, or so stories say.”

“She ruled Russia absolutely for countless millennia. All of the creatures of the night shuddered to see her hideous face and bowed before her might. In most cities, the other clans look down on the sewer rats, but in Russia they only dwelt there at her sufferance.”

“Even other vampires weren’t safe from her wrath. She would cook and eat them whole.”

Emil: Another myth made real in his mind. He has no doubt about it. And again the myth leads to the same end: the ever-present existence of Kenites.

The sheer power of being able to control the entirety of Russia, of being implanted forever in the cultural tableau, is unimaginable, but at the same time, so enticing. To stretch his gaze from coast to coast; to watch over it all.

At the mention of eating other vampires, Emil looks visibly shocked. That isn’t how it’s meant to be, Kenites consuming Kenites. If God made those servants for a purpose, surely it wasn’t for them to destroy each other. And eat each other whole.

He’s silent for a moment, taking in the portrayal, before pointing to the reptilian creatures trailing behind the hag in the mosaic. “Are those dragons?” he asks incredulously. Of course, it isn’t necessarily out of place to have dragons in art.

But maybe.

“I mean, were they real?” he asks hesitantly.

GM: “The Russians have legends about dragons. Zmei Gorynych, or just zmei. Enormous serpents with three, six, nine, or twelve heads. The twelve-headed one was supposed to be impossible to kill, even with all of its heads cut off. It bears some resemblance to the hydra of Greek myth, actually.”

“I don’t think they’re actually real, though. I haven’t heard the Nosferatu tell any stories about them outside of one Baba Yaga myth.”

“There are countless stories about her. But the way this one goes, long, long ago, when the earth was young, there was a powerful earth priestess to a forgotten deity named Baba Yaga. Her magic was linked to the land itself, and the land was Baba Yaga. She used her power to defeat and imprison Koschei the Deathless, devourer of men and gods, the unkillable giant before whom even the zmei quaked with dread. For years beyond count, Russia’s people lived in peace and harmony with the land.”

“But a taint entered Russia. It was a long time before this evil became known to the people, but it left death and sorrow wherever its shadow fell, and the land and its people cried out for their protector.”

“Baba Yaga went to confront this evil thing. Her hair tuned white and she aged twenty years when she looked upon it, for he was a man, or at least a thing in its shape, and he was truly hideous. A lesser soul than Baba yaga would have been struck dead to look upon his face. In his passing, trees died, grass withered, and the earth itself bled under his feet. Never before had Baba Yaga beheld such ugliness, and she could not allow it to reside in Russia. She hurled scorn at him, admonishing him for his foul looks and demanding that he depart her lands.”

“Mortals had yet again spurned Absimiliard, the father of the Nosferatu clan, for his tragic face. He swore that this earth priestess, this Baba Yaga, would regret her remarks. He slunk away from her, letting her believe she had driven him off.”

“The night of the next moon, he came for her. She put up a great fight, but even her mightiest magic could not slow the night-creature’s march towards her. She called up the spirits of trees and streams, and the land cried with every step the vampire took. Her hands shone like the sun, burning his dead flesh. The wind protected her, though the vampire ripped mountains from the bones of the earth to throw at her. The old one withered before her power, and his anguished form burned. He screamed his rage and still he did not let up, for she knew that if she released such a creature, she would die.”

“The old one only smiled. Then he was gone. He had vanished without a trace. Baba Yaga dared to hope it was her doing, that her magic had destroyed him. The very animals of the forest then turned against her. The same creatures that had helped her in the past now threw themselves against her. She turned to run, for she had never experienced such betrayal. She ran straight into the vampire’s arms and was locked in an iron embrace.”

“Without speaking a word, the old one told her of good and evil. He told her how he had searched the world for one worthy of his power and that he had finally found her. He told her of how she would serve him. Together they would rule Russia. He then gave her death and darkness, pain and new life.”

“Baba Yaga woke the next night with the old one standing above her. She tried to run, but with a single word, he stopped her in her tracks. She was his childe now to command. She knew her mind was not her own, and her body no longer coursed with life. She felt her ties to the land wither. The old one smiled and she recoiled in disgust.”

“She reached inside herself and began the summoning. In her mind, she could feel the land rebel against this, begging her not to do such a thing. Yet all she wanted was the destruction of this monster who had made her less than human.”

“The old one did not move. He was transfixed by her words as she called upon the darkness. The zmei answered her call, stirring in the depths of their slumber. One by one, they burst from the ground, their forms so huge and their heads so many as to blot out the night sky.”

“At Baba Yaga’s command, the dragons fell upon the old one, but his cunning far outmatched theirs. As powerful as they were, they were weak from their long sleep. The old one created figments of himself in their minds and sent them scattering to the far corners of Russia to find him.”

“Baba Yaga saw this and wept. She knew the vampire would make her his slave, a thrall to his desires. She could not bear to contemplate this. Once more she reached into the darkness, and this time, she brought forth all that she feared.”

“Koschei the Deathless, despoiler of Russia, unkillable giant, devourer of man and gods, burst the bonds of his prison Baba Yaga had laid long ago. Koschei stepped forward to battle the old one and Baba Yaga fled in fear. She ran from the maelstrom on the battlefield.”

“There are no witnesses to the battle, for all within a thousand miles was utterly laid waste. Epics recount glorious blows delivered by both sides and cunning deceits orchestrated by both contestants. No one knows for sure what happened. All that is known is that Absimiliard never came for his childe again. Baba Yaga knew the old one did not reside in Russian soil, for the land itself told her that.”

“But the land wept, for the great Baba Yaga was no longer Russia’s protector. Baba Yaga had unleashed evil upon the land and become everything she despised. Yet she decided the Motherland would not be rid of her so easily. The earth shunned her, but she could still command it. The animals fled from her, but she could call them back. Her magic was changed but was still mighty.”

“She sought out others, too, priests and priestesses of her forgotten deity, and made them like she was. Absimiliard never Embraced another childe, but Baba Yaga created many, and birthed the Nosferatu clan into the world. The land wept, for the great Baba Yaga was no longer Russia’s protector, but its tyrant.”

“So would she reign for millennia untold, until she sank into the mire of legend. Some say she sleeps beneath Russia’s soil even now, and sleeps uneasily, waiting to awaken and plunge the Motherland into a new age of darkness and terror. For Baba Yaga and Russia are one.”

Emil: Another story shared, greater in scope still than the last. From the very human lifespan of Arthur, to the centuries long reign of the Jewish prince, to a being whose age is counted in millennia, the exponential growth is staggering.

When Elliot describes the destructive effect of the Embrace on Baba Yaga’s power, a shiver crawls up Emil’s spine and forms a heavy lump in his throat. Is that why Carter didn’t make him his childe? That power within him, that sight beyond sight, those strange powers that have gotten him where he is. All his strengths might fall away with one bite, replaced by some darker reflections. But that isn’t right, Carter promised him so much more than he has now. Maybe that’s what happens when the corrupt sire, they spread their corruption. Yeah, that’s got to be it.

Or maybe it’s that the iron hag deserved it. Maybe God willed her to be corrupted. Perhaps she was served into the hands of Amalek instead of the guard of the Kenites.

Whichever it is, the wondering loosens the quiet grip of fear from Emil’s mind and leads to further questions. It is curious that the Kindred incorporate those mythological features into the story. Why speak of zmei and legendary giants in the story of a Kindred they know existed, one whom may be known to older, still active Kindred? Tradition is one possibility. The story’s always been told like this, since Baba Yaga first related the events. Though perhaps it is more likely that Baba Yaga didn’t relate this herself, in which case the younger Kindred who had forged it incorporated the Russian folktales they grew up on or intended it as an instrument of instilling fear first to Kindred residents disloyal to Baba Yaga and then to their childer as a whole when her person had sunk fully into the myth.

His last words on the subject break Emil’s train of thought, and he breaks his silence by asking, “She controlled Russia for millennia, and one day she just decided to drop it and fall asleep? If she sleeps so uneasily, why doesn’t she wake up?”

GM: “Isn’t that how it is with all myths?” Elliot asks with a hint of wryness. “Things are always grander, greater, mightier in the ancient past. Those stories don’t have a place in the modern world.”

“But you can’t say they’re gone for good, because that’s just depressing. King Arthur sleeps in Avalon. Barbarossa sleeps in the Kyffhäuser mountain. Sir Francis Drake will return if Drake’s Drum is beaten. The ‘king under the mountain’ who’ll return when his people need him most is a universal myth.”

“I think it’s similar here, with Baba Yaga. Only, well, her waking up wouldn’t be good news for anyone. She’d be the danger a king needs to save everyone from.”

“But Kindred myths tend to be a lot darker than human ones.”

Emil: “And figures of human myth don’t exist just a few steps up the family tree of your city’s underground librarian,” Emil adds.

GM: “Well, that’s immortality. Like we said with Zvi, he was around for about 800 years.”

There’s a flash of pain in Elliot’s eyes when Emil says ‘just a few steps up.’

“I’d guess that the stories about Baba Yaga drop off around the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in the 9th and 10th centuries, anyway,” he goes on. “A pagan figure of myth wouldn’t have a place anymore in the developing medieval world.”

Emil: That flash of pain is met with a flash of guilt. Poor guy. Brought into the world just a few levels too low on the generational tree. That makes sense, though. Nicodemus must be his sire.

On the bright side, seems like despite his weakness he didn’t inherit the wretched look of his ancestors. All he has to mark him are lacerations and a damaged scalp. Next to the likes of Codi, he’s a supermodel.

Silver linings? Though that leaves the question of why Nicodemus decided to make Elliot into this if he knew what would result? If he wanted a slave, couldn’t he have just taken one? Why condemn a rising star of a student to this mediocre eternity?

“But between Baba Yaga and Prince Zvi there’s another link. If she fell into sleep in the 10th century, they’d have to have been made at the latest around then, right? Or was it just the stories that stopped then, not her activities?”

GM: “I don’t know, sorry,” says Elliot. “All I have to go on are the stories. They don’t really have exact dates attached. ‘When the world was young’ covers a lot of time, and it’s probably meant figuratively rather than literally. The earth’s about 5 billion years old, after all, and I doubt any vampire is that old. Most Kindred myths are also told in the context of the Great Flood, which there isn’t any geological evidence for.”

“But there’s two other Kindred between Baba Yaga and Prince Zvi, so when you’re dealing with immortals that leaves a lot of room. Yehuda could’ve only been a year old when he Embraced Prince Zvi, or he could’ve been two thousand. Who knows.”

“I mean, just consider Prince Zvi himself. He could’ve Embraced childer all the way back in the 1100s, or as late as World War II.”

Emil: “The mind just isn’t built to fully straddle such a timeline. At best we pick out the events that matter to us and string them together, but that leaves these massive gaps whose size is left unknown. Even during the start of what we consider civilization, the unknown quantity of the past sat as grand and alluring to those people as it does to us. The Epic of Gilgamesh starts out with the words ‘In those days, in those distant days, in those nights, in those remote nights, in those years, in those distant years.’ No matter how far back you go, the past is always there, frozen in time. A tower spiraling up through the clouds, a new brick laid with each passing day.”

Emil thinks for a moment, before asking. “Why the Flood?”

GM: “True. We tell myths to make sense of the world, ultimately, and a span of years as long as ‘4 billion’ doesn’t really help there.”

“But I’m not sure either about the Flood, sorry. I just assume that’s the context, because some of the Nosferatu call Baba Yaga’s sire an Antediluvian and that’s what the term literally means in Latin. ‘Ante’ before, ‘diluvian’ flood.”

“It might also be figurative rather than literal. ‘Antediluvian’ can also just refer to something being very old.”

Emil: “Could be. But Cain was there before the flood,” Emil poses. “He had sons, too. And Enoch was his first,” he says confident in its truth.

I know. I spoke to him.

GM: “I thought Enoch was one of Seth’s descendants, Methuselah’s father and Noah’s ancestor?”

Emil: “He was Seth’s descendant, or was he? There are two Enochs listed in the geneology of Genesis, one the son of Cain and the other a descendant of Seth. Cain’s son had built the first city, and it was called Enoch. The descendant of Seth lived three hundred and sixty five years before ascending to the heavens by fire and becoming an angel. The tie between the two figures has been the source of significant scholarly debate.”

“Of course, the scholars couldn’t have come to the conclusion they were one and the same. How would they explain their coexistence multiple human generations apart? But what if they were one?”

“After all, Cain begat Enoch two verses after he was marked by God.”

GM: “Ah, I hadn’t known there were two. Biblical mythology isn’t as much my specialty. That’s a nice way though to explain the apparent redundancy within a Kindred context.”

“I’m not sure if I believe the Cainite myths, to be honest. The scientific evidence all says humans evolved from apes. I think vampires might have just always been around, like any other predatory species.”

Emil: Cainites then. That makes sense with the ‘close to Caine’ remark.

“That’s an interesting thought, though to clarify, humans evolved alongside apes as did the rest of the primates that exist today. All primates share a common ancestor if you go back far enough, and I’d posit that isn’t so different from all vampires sharing a progenitor in Cain.”

“If you wanted to say that vampires have been around forever, that would imply they can come from other animals, not just humans. Given the inherent power and longevity of vampires, we would expect to still see vampirism in animals today. Do we?” Emil asks.

GM: “Sorry, I was speaking in the vernacular. But that isn’t totally the same. Natural selection works through organisms with the most advantageous traits surviving to pass them down to their offspring in the greatest numbers. Evolution happens concurrently, among many organisms, as opposed to them all descending from a singular common ancestor.”

“Vampire animals is a freaky thought, though. I haven’t seen any, but…”

He looks around the library.

“I haven’t really seen a lot, either…”

Emil: Emil wonders if there’s a way to help him out. For now, all he can do is be a good guest, but maybe.

“Perhaps that’s something of a silver lining. No risk of getting mauled by hitherto unknown vampiric cougars,” he tries.

But as he jokes, his fingers rap against his pant legs.

(“There anybody up topside you’ve been missing? Anybody you’re worried about? Any unfinished business?”)

GM: “Yeah, that’s true. I don’t think the Embrace would be good for them. Vampire humans are dangerous enough.”

Elliot’s face briefly flickers. Tap. Tap.

(“There’s my parents. I don’t know what they think happened to me. Nicodemus just says not to think about them anymore.”)

(“He hasn’t let me make a call or send a letter or anything. They’re in Delaware, so it’s not like they could really look for me either…”)

Emil: “If the animal vampires were here before human ones, they probably went the way of Baba Yaga, falling asleep after too many millennia spent awake wandering the land”.

(“In a way, that’s better than the alternative. If they come looking for you, they either have to get turned into renfields or be hunted down.”)

He taps, shrugging sadly.

(“You don’t want to give them false hope either. But maybe there’s a way you can help them still. Not by message, but by action. Did you ever think what you’d want to do for your parents if you really made it in the world?”)

GM: “I could see that. It’s a disturbing thought they could still be out there, because they might also be some of those really nasty prehistoric animals.”

“Hell, maybe there’s vampire dinosaurs.”

Tap. Tap.

(“What? Why would they have to get hunted down?”)

Emil: (“The Masquerade.”)

He tries out the word. It’s concise; only three syllables. Blanche would like that. People like that in their excuses. The more quippy they are the louder they ring as true.

And this one best be louder than a jet engine. It’s an excuse for splitting families, for millennia of deception, perhaps even for keeping Elliot and his weaknesses underground.

(“Think about it. Your parents get a call from you after years of thinking you’re long gone or dead. They’re gonna have more questions than you have answers you’re allowed to give. But that won’t matter to them. When it’s your family, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is to get to the truth. You’ll search until it kills you. What happens when they get close to the truth, when they come to Houston? There’s only two options far as I’m concerned. Nicodemus finds them first or another Kindred does. If another does, then they manipulate you into acting against Nicodemus by threatening your parents’ lives. Should Nicodemus find them, he will either use them as pawns to further control you or, more likely, he’ll kill them to prevent anyone else from making them thorns in his side and to prevent them from asking enough questions to endanger the Masquerade.”)

“Maybe they do exist. Maybe that’s the source of monster stories like bigfoot or the yeti or werewolves or any of the litany of mythological creatures we hear stories about around in folktales.”

GM: “Huh. That’d make some sense. Yetis are ‘just’ chimps or gorillas that are also vampires.”

Tap. Tap.

(“So why not just tell them the truth, and to stay in Delaware? They can keep it secret. It’s better than thinking I’m dead.”)

Emil: He’s been dead eight years, and no one explained this to him? Emil wonders, his brow furrowed into deep trenches of concern.

Tap tap tap.

(“No one can keep a secret forever, Elliot.”)

(“You think they’ll sit quietly knowing you’re alive and being enslaved in an underground building? They’re your parents, Elliot. And they won’t believe you if you tell them you’re not human anymore, they’ll just think your mind’s been broken from the torture.”)

Emil thinks back to how deep Rutledge’s tendrils had dug into the city’s power centers in just a couple years. All sources of authority, legal and not. Ears everywhere. Eyes everywhere. Hands everywhere.

(“Maybe they won’t come themselves, but they’ll get the authorities involved. And if the authorities get involved, then whatever Kindred live in Delaware also do. Kindred have fingers in every sector of society. The police too. Your parents wouldn’t know what hit them, and you’d be stuck here.”)

“And the Loch Ness Monster is just a plesiosaur, an immortal, bloodsucking plesiosaur.”

GM: “Still making sense to me. Werewolves are vampires wolves.”

(“So I could lie about where I am. Or just not tell them anything. It’s better than letting them just keep thinking I’m dead!”)

Emil: He’s stuck so deep in denial, damn.

“And Frankenstein’s Monster, he’s just Frankenstein’s childe.”

(“You’re gone from their lives without a word for who knows how many years. They very likely have come to some sort of peace by now with their version of the story. And then one day you pop up and say, ’I’m alive, I’m fine, but you can’t come see me. Ever.’ What do you think that would do to them?”)

GM: Tap. Tap.

(“That’s bad, sure, but isn’t it… still better, just knowing I’m out there?”)

Emil: (“They already know where you are Elliot, and it’s a better truth than any lie you could spin for them. You’re in here.”)

Emil taps, pressing his palm over his heart.

(“Deep. Where it counts.”)

GM: (“But I just disappeared! They didn’t get any closure or anything. They might even still think I’m alive.”)

Emil: (“How many years has it been?”)

He asks, but he already knows. It’s been eight.

GM: (“Well… what year is it?”)

Emil: (“2007.”)

GM: (“Oh. So eight years.”)

Emil: Emil looks into Elliot’s eyes. He responds slowly, solemnly.

(“Then they probably have resigned themselves to the idea that you’re dead. It’s what they would have been told. Statistically, if you’re gone that long, you don’t come back alive.”)

He lets that thought hang in the air for a moment, before continuing to tap.

(“But you’re right, they haven’t received closure yet. I can help you give them that.”)

He lets him fill in the gaps. Closure means telling the truth. Closure means that he’s dead to them. Closure means accepting that from here on out, he’s on his own. Even if he practically was before, now he’d be snipping the last hope of someone from before rescuing him. But it’s cruel not to give them that.

“And dragons are just old vampiric birds,” he says, continuing the charade. “I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be a dragon. Humans only get to see so much of our planet in their lives, usually just a few cities. But dragons, dragons are different. They can soar through the clouds and see half the world all at once. From above, you can see the world like it really is. One organism, both sleeping and waking. Winter, Summer, Spring, and Fall. A great inhaling and exhaling. The darkness on one half chasing the light on the other, which chases the darkness in turn.”

“All of this at once.”

“And they see how life is tied together, even in the dark, strung together in a great tapestry of twinkling lights.”

GM: "There’s a reason dragons capture our imagination to the extent they do. They straddle the line between mortals, gods, beasts, and forces of nature. They’re the ultimate predators, beyond even vampires.’

Tap. Tap.

(“How’s that? What kind of closure?”)

Emil: Tap. Tap.

(“The closure in knowing that their son has passed on peacefully. It doesn’t have to be explicit, could just be orchestrating a series of coincidences, symbols, and signs for them to encounter that make them know you’re watching over them from above. You know your parents best, so you’d decide what would be most meaningful to them. I’d make sure they saw it. If you want to do more, we could fulfill a wish they’ve always held dear.”)

“Beyond vampires, except perhaps the most famous one. Dracula, the son of the Dragon.”

GM: “Oh, that’s true. It’s the most fearsome monster out there, so it makes sense he’d claim it as his symbol.”

Tap. Tap.

(“What do you mean by signs? How would they… how would they know, for sure?”)

Elliot’s face looks glum as he taps the morse characters out.

Emil: “Well, perhaps it’s why he kept it even into the stories. He’s the son of the Dragon because his father was a Dragon. Vlad II Dracul, a member of the Order of the Dragon.”

Tap. Tap.

(“An image flashing on the television, the text on a billboard, a song playing on the radio, the advertisements that show on their screens. Each image and text holding a small reminder of the memories you’ve shared together. Each on its own might only feel coincidental, like passing a bakery and remembering the fragrance of your grandma’s cookies. But if the little coincidences keep stacking up, each holding a different part of their memory of you… well, humans are pattern finders. When they see such a strong pattern, they’ll see it as it is. Your spirit taking form.”)

(“And once they’re sure it has to be your spirit, once they grow the courage to believe you’re there with them, in between and enmeshed with the memories they would find you, writing to them a message no one else notices. Your last ‘I love you’. Your ’I’m watching over you’. Your final ‘goodnight.’”)

GM: (“Okay… I guess that sounds good. For them to get that. Better than just eight years of… nothing.”)

But some final measure of hope and animacy seems to drain from Elliot’s face as he taps out the response. He doesn’t bother continuing the verbal charade.

Emil: (“It’ll be hard, just thinking about it is hard, I know. You’re allowed to feel how it makes you feel.”)

Emil fortifies the concern evident in the tightness of his jaw with enough hope for the two of them. The future floats in sheets over his eyes, shimmering in the reflective gleam of low-light.

(“But try to think about it like so: this is your chance to become their guardian angel. For the first time in eight years, Elliot, you can be the hero. You just need to pull the sword from the stone. Think about it.”)

GM: Elliot does seem to think about it.

That seems to make him look even glummer.

(“But I’m trapped here. Forever. I’m nobody’s hero.”)

(“Nicodemus goes crazy. He stabs my face all the time, with a pen knife. Codi hits me all the time. Makes me lick his boots. All of them. They’re… they’re horrible.”)

He gives a sniff and dabs at his eye.

(“They’re so… they’re so horrible.”)

Emil: Emil hands him one of the cloths from the bag.

GM: He hesitates for a moment, then rubs it against his face.

(“I don’t know why they hate me so much. Why they’re so horrible.”)

(“Nicodemus, he used, he used to be nice to me. I thought he was so… cool. So smart and well-read.”)

(“But that was before I knew he was a vampire.”)

(“He used to play a game with me, we’d pose obscure trivia questions and research the answers. We’d talk for hours about history and literature. But after he… turned me into a vampire… he just…”)

Emil: It won’t be like that with Carter, something in Emil’s mind insists.

(“Changed,”) he fills in.

GM: (“He screams at me, yells I’m stupid and ugly and worthless, makes me wear rags, doesn’t let me bathe, hits me, screams at me, cuts me up…”)

That does explain the smell.

(“I haven’t been outside in… in years, except for the experiments…”)

Emil: (“That’s awful, Elliot. That you have to endure that. Just terrible.”)

Emil’s expression contorts at the description, fighting to keep his composure beyond the anger.

An awful thought arises when he mentions the word experiment.

GM: Elliot is full-on crying. His shoulders shake as pinkish, coppery-smelling tears run down his face.

(“I don’t know why. I don’t know why they do this. I just want to take care of the library, I’d do it anyway, for free, they don’t have to do this, I don’t know why they do…”)

Emil: A few stray tears find their way down Emil’s face, but he’s wearing a supportive smile. It’s one of the few things he can do. He looks so desperately like he needs to be hugged, but he’s too hurt for that. Traumatized. He might have been helped by meditating, or breathing. But Emil saw how irregular his breathing was. Halfway between life and death. Asking him to breathe might just remind him that he’s different than the others. That won’t do.

So he taps.

(“I know you do, Elliot. You don’t deserve what they do to you. You’re a perfect caretaker of this library. You convinced me of that as soon as you started talking. When you tell a story, you’re vibrant, exuberant, and powerful. The fact that you can do that at all with how you’re treated goes to show: you’re incredibly resilient, Elliot.”)

(“Resilient like a true dragon. More than Codi. More than Nicodemus. More than any of them. The scars you bear on your skin are just your scales coming through. No matter how hard they try, they cannot break you.”)

Emil pulls up his shirt to reveal the still-fresh, still red scars across his stomach.

(“I’ve got scales too, Elliot. And I’m here for you. I will be here for you. Why? Because at heart, I know you’re not just some Elliot. At heart, you’re Elliot Dracul.”)

GM: Emil’s words of praise seem to bring something to Elliot’s face. It’s not a smile. It doesn’t look as if he’s smiled in some time, except when telling stories. But his tear-stained eyes seem to shine. Brim. Strain upwards like a dragon taking flight.

(“I… thanks. Thanks. I don’t feel like much of a dragon, ever, so… thanks.”)

(“It’s just… is this forever? I don’t know if I can… last forever.”)

Emil: (“There’s no such thing as lasting forever, Elliot. Even if you’re immortal. All there is, is tonight. You survive tonight, you’ve won a battle. And when you wake up, there’ll be a whole ’nother tonight waiting for you, and the last one will only exist in your memories.”)

(“It’s been two thousand and nine hundred or so battles down here and you’ve won them all. So hold onto this with all the faith you can muster: Eventually, your night will come. And when it does, I’ll be with you, soaring free into the night sky.”)


Emil III, Chapter V
The Underground

“There’s always another way to your destination. You need only look beneath the surface.”
Emil Kane

Wednesday night, 17 October 2007, PM

Emil: Emil knows he can find the blueprints, he just has to crack open the right bureaucrat’s file system. But time’s running short, and he needs to confirm with Carter what’s safe to divulge to the sewer rats.

So he dials Blanche’s number first. They have a story to get straight.

GM: The other ghoul picks up promptly.

“Blanche H. Prescott III, speaking.”

Emil: “Em-ee-ul, res-pon-ding.” Can’t forget those triplets!

“Are you alone at the moment?”

GM: “I am.”

Emil: "I need to discuss information with the master within the hour and we need to be on the same page regarding my sleeping arrangements in case he asks.

“For instance, I was on my computer all night. What is the address of your house? I won’t come over, I just need to know in case.”

GM: “The master’s time is valuable, boy. Half-bloods such as we cannot him to be available within the hour upon our whim!” Blanche declares indignantly.

Emil: “Why of course. I spurn the thought of fri-vo-lous squan-de-ring of his time,” he replies with equal indignance. “How-e-ver, I would not be so in-sis-tent if this know-ledge I would share was not im-mense-ly im-por-tant and valued.”

GM: “Hmph. Very well, I shall inform the master. What is this matter of such urgency as to require his attentions?”

Emil: “I have in-for-mation re-gar-ding a-no-ther like the master in this city. Things kept nor-mall-y hidden. Even bet-ween those like the master. I must speak mum on it here, this line could be tapped.”

GM: “Very well.” Blanche supplies his address and asks Emil for his. “I shall be at your hotel after I inform the master of this matter’s urgency. I shall pass your information to him if he is not immediately available.”

Emil: Liar. You just want to tell him it yourself.

“Blanche, sir. Unfortunately, this highly im-port-ant intelligence cannot be passed through in-ter-me-di-a-ry. It was ac-qui-ered using very new com-pu-ter software, and for se-cur-ity, it must be demon-stra-ted only through know-ledg-able use of the very same software.”

Emil saw how long Blanche took to do a simple text input into his computer. Him using something new like Qeeqle Maps or even the internet generally seems like a pipe dream.

“I will of course inform the master of your important role in getting this key information to him. He will no doubt be appreciative. We might even present it together if you feel comfortable with the technologies involved,” he says excitedly.

GM: “Hmm, ver-y,” click, “That would be suf-ic-ient for the master’s,” click, “suf-ic-ient for his needs. You may ex-pect,” click, “I shall ar-rive,” click, “I shall be there soon.”

The other phone line is the last thing to go ‘click.’

Emil has time to order room service for a long-postponed meal and start the subject of his next search before he gets a call from the front desk about his visitor.

Emil: Instead of starting his search or ordering dinner room service, for he’s sure to lose his lunch by going into the sewers on a full stomach, he orders something small but high in calories and watches reels of images of disfigured individuals, in hopes of desensitizing his eyes to judgement of the sewer rats below.

“I’ll be right there.”

He locks his valuables away in the safe and blocks the windows with furniture.

Emil triggers the camera trick he setup some hours back, replacing the footage of him walking down the stairwell with looped footage of the same hallway empty.

Eventually he’s out in the lobby, holding a duffel bag full of his tools for the lesson, his cryptic notes, a flashlight, and a smattering of plastic coverings. He wears the cheap clothes he bought from Target. The most expensive thing on him is a pair of boots, already scuffed before they left the register.

GM: Blanche surveys Emil dubiously, then tells him to get into the back seat of his old-fashioned ’60s-era car. The seat is covered with plastic wrap. The seatbelt is covered with plastic wrap too. The strap and the buckle.

Emil supposes it’s an improvement over being expected to play driver.

Blanche does that. He tells Emil to fill him in on this information along the way to the hospital.

Emil: Emil reminds Blanche of the security risks of letting go of information in unsecured areas, and of the fact that the information is meaningless without computer aid. He even shows him his notes, written in cryptically warped Hebrew script, to demonstrate its meaninglessness. He’s torn off the Holiday Inn logo on the pages.

He reiterates that he will give him his due credit whether he can help present the info or not.

GM: Emil finds his notes missing.

“Tsk-tsk! Security you say, boy!” chides Blanche.

“When did you last see these notes?”

Emil: “When I put them in this zipped duffel bag right before I came to the lobby.”

This reminds Emil of the barn, where the shovel and the hay just disappeared under his nose.

GM: Blanche sniffs. “Perhaps your hotel is known to other Kindred. You would be advised to take stronger security precautions in the future.”

Emil: You wouldn’t know security if it threw you in a cellar and bricked up the entrance, he thinks, feeling the onset of an eye tic.

But then, as if remembering a vivid dream, Emil pictures Blanche looking him in the eyes, asking him for the notes and then him placing them in the glove compartment, and then looking him in the eyes once more and telling him to forget.

And he hears the snotty sniggering of Blanche’s voice, but he sees Blanche, and he’s not moving his lips.

And in that moment, Emil’s mood turns on a dime, but he doesn’t show it in his expression. He is alert, and oh so excited.

So that’s why Lucky said not to look them in the eyes.

GM: Blanche drives them to the hospital, gathers some things from the glove compartment into a briefcase, gets out, and locks the door.

Emil: Emil steps out of the car, carrying his duffel bag, ready to go present to Carter. He takes care to walk slightly behind Blanche, ready to avert his eyes if things go south.

He follows him into the hospital.

GM: They make their way to the office they spoke in last night. Carter arrives shortly later, dressed in a white doctor’s coat.

“Blanche said you had something urgent to discuss.”

Emil: “Yessir, I’ve spent all of today gathering intelligence on some of the movers and shakers in the city to prep for my imminent visit with the sewer rats. I’ve uncovered some fairly substantial information on the secrets of what I believe to be either two or three Kindred.”

He smiles, savoring the taste of the secrets on his tongue.

“You told me the sewer rats would appreciate information and I want to make a good impression for you, but I wanted to run the info by you in case you’d prefer to keep any of it for later use. I made some ciphered notes for the specifics.”

He looks to Blanche expectantly.

GM: “Yes,” Blanche answers, “the boy took thor-ough,” click, “the boy took ex-ten-sive notes, on the spe-cif-ics.”

“Yes The sewer rats would appreciate information, but we aren’t giving away anything significant for free,” Carter says. “What did you find?”

Emil: Emil goes into his many findings, the evidence behind them, and the hypotheses he has around them.

There’s the three potential Kindred: George Mutscher, Hosea Walker, and Daisy Walker—the latter two, a purported father-daughter pair, being relative newcomers to the city, both of whom are using false identities constructed in 2005, which he remarks is around the time of Katrina. He notes the utter lack of outdoor daytime photos of any of the three as evidence towards their being Kindred.

Then there are the power structures they’ve respectively wrested. The megachurch and the oil company respectively. Emil makes it a point to note a potentially leverageable rivalry between the Walkers and Mutscher due to the newcomers poaching of his power base.

He goes over the power dynamic between the Walkers, the implications of Daisy’s sabotaging the church business deal should one of the pair be a slave instead of a Kindred.

He also proudly claims to have found the coordinates for the room where Daisy Walker sleeps with a margin of error of less than a meter.

Finally, he tells Carter that he followed his suspicions about their arriving in Houston during Katrina back home to NOLA and found something particularly interesting. Jedaiah and Julep Morrison, the father-daughter pair who ran a traveling revival church until the murder scandal forced it to close. And the real interesting point. Daisy Walker is, or was, Julep Morrison, and there’s photographic evidence to prove it.

“If we were to sell some of this information, I’m near certain that Mutscher might be an interested buyer. But of course, you know the lay of the land better than I do.”

GM: “Yes. It’s good you came to me with this first,” says Carter. “Right now we aren’t selling Hartmaan anything he could use against Rutledge. That would undermine our position.”

He raises his eyebrows.

“But I’m very impressed you found all of this out on your own. I hadn’t known where Marion slept, either. Or that bit about her sabotaging her sire’s deal.” He looks thoughtful. “How did you do it, beyond ‘computers?’”

Emil: Emil is beaming at the compliment. There’s something special about sharing secrets, it’s like uncorking a good bottle of champagne: it’s just satisfying enough to assuage the guilt of knowing you can’t ever take the act back.

“Well, fundamentally, all hacks are predicated on taking advantage of a few weaknesses inherent to humans: error-making, habit-following, and the misplacement of trust. Rutledge”—Emil picks up quick—“and Marion’s church is built on a foundation of thousands upon thousands of equally faulty humans. There simply isn’t enough time to make sure no one is making a dangerous mistake. The compromised computer of a sufficiently connected target was all it took to trigger a domino effect, compromising any further unsecure targets. I had my eyes and ears in every fault and crevice. Inevitably, one employee says something in an email they think no one else can hear. That’s how I learned about the sabotage.”

He continues, “And how I learned about Hartmaan, for that matter. They all deal with the same pool of politicians. Many of them seem to have forgotten the nasty effect loose lips have on otherwise sturdy ships.”

GM: “Well, like you say, with thousands enough kine, it’s impossible to keep everyone’s lips from flapping loose. So much the better for us.” Carter looks thoughtful again. “It’s a similar challenge faced by Texas Medical Center. My sire and I belong to an… organization with a controlling but more diffuse ownership stake over TMC’s assorted hospitals. I’m curious what security measures you’d recommend to stop someone else from doing to us what you’ve done to Rutledge’s church.”

Emil: Emil seems to ponder that for a few moments, before answering, “Well the first thing to note is that every organization is different, and so there is no one-size-fits-all security solution.”

“I’ve seen many of the issues of Rutledge’s church firsthand, so I could tell you that to tighten their communications security they should stratify their messaging channels based on a security clearance classification scheme with maximally decoupled layers. But that’s an informed solution for Rutledge’s church, and may or may not be the best solution for your organization.”

GM: “Certainly. Texas Medical Center has over 100,000 employees.”

Emil: He nods, continuing, “That sort of insight about an organization’s security risks comes from what we call penetration testing.”

“A security analyst is hired to test every possible avenue for breaking into the organization’s systems. Once that’s done, they offer the client informed recommendations on how to patch any cracks. Before that process is done, most you can do is apply general best practices.”

“I’m not sure where you stand in your organization, but if you have the authority, I’d be more than happy to put the work in to make your organization a highly undesirable target to attack.”

“Though,” he thinks, “until then, there is one piece of insight I could share that would greatly reduce your org’s vulnerability.”

GM: Carter waits expectantly for him to share it.

Emil: “If I were to target a hospital, the first thing I would do is take advantage of the ubiquitous use of fax machines to pass around medical records. Fax machines are some of the most insecure devices on the planet. By design, the data that passes through them cannot be encrypted nor can it be sanitized to dispose of any malware being sent alongside the fax. With one malicious fax, an attacker could be granted access to not only all the private patient data passed through the fax machine but also any other computer on the same network as the fax machine.”

“With email, you have to be at least a little clever to break in. Connecting a fax machine to your network is like leaving the key to your front door on a freshly unrolled welcome mat.”

GM: Carter frowns and looks towards the office’s two fax machines.

“Blanche, make a note to get rid of those.”

“Of course, sir,” the ghoul replies.

Emil: He smiles approvingly. “That’s a wise decision. As with many things, nothing guarantees complete protection except abstinence.”

“But you know better than I how entrenched the fax machine is in practically every hospital’s communication and records systems. Not something easily uprooted, I’m afraid. Now, there are ways I could suggest—or even implement—that would provide a much safer middle ground. You interested?”

GM: “Yes. Also, congratulations. After what you’ve found on Rutledge, you’ve also found a new job while you’re in Houston. Blanche, have the hospital hire Emil as an independent cybersecurity consultant.”

“Very well, sir.”

“You’ll be doing most of your actual work for TMC anyways,” Carter says. “My sire’s and my organization largely doesn’t exist online, but I suspect the world’s largest medical center should have enough to keep anyone busy.”

Emil: Emil is positively beaming at that. In some beautiful, broken way, he’s making his mom’s dream come true.

“Thank you so much, Carter. I won’t let you down.”

At least for himself, though he knows he can lift his brothers up as well, though finding a place for Justin among the successful might prove more of a challenge.

“Though, if it’s at all possible, I’d like to be hired under a different name and a different face. Consultants are typically not hired right out of college, and developing another persona for myself will help keep my activities here off the radar of those who knew me in NOLA.”

GM: “Prudent. We can hire you under a different name, though a face will take more effort.”

Emil: He nods some more, and then as if painting a picture in the air, he explains that, “the process can be simplified by using a fresh face from the morgue. John Doe in all the right senses. Ubiquitous name, no family or friends to speak of, dead-end white collar job, a clean rapsheet alongside a history dotted with minor traffic violations to create a discouragingly boring paper trail, very limited online presence, and you have your guy. As long as their death hasn’t been processed fully through the bureaucracies, it should be fine to take them. I don’t know how much influence in Rice you have, but giving him a CS degree if he lacks it would be icing on top.”

Emil seems oddly unperturbed by the morbid idea, and despite the pause he takes, supposedly to think about it, the words come out fluidly, a solution to a puzzle he’s solved many times. Though then it was only in his head.

GM: “Falsifying an undergraduate degree takes some effort, but I have enough pull to make it easier for someone whose specialty is that sort of thing to do so. Stealing someone’s face should be relatively easy. Countless bodies pass through here. Blanche can look into that too.”

“Very good, sir,” says the ghoul.

Emil: “That should work quite well then,” Emil says, clasping his hands together with an audible clap. “By the way, I’d like to commend to Blanche for the good work he