The Phandame’s Pain
“Lil’ more to the left. Other left.”
The Phandame twirled her fingers. Blue jays pushed a mattress around the sand garden facing a baroque church. Their wing-flapping—a blur of azure—sent wind puffs that blew away the trails of mist the Phandame’s twirling left behind.
“Aaaannnnd… Capital!” She spread out her fingers at the birds, who let go of the mattress. “Stay put. Will size it up.”
She strolled away across glass shards lying on the sand. Her sandals and brown sarong dulled the shards’ refraction of the moonlight. It shone over the cloister the blue jays toiled in. Some dragged rakes over sand angels in the garden, but the rest? Too busy pecking away at one another on a jukebox inside the church’s belfry. Fighting over whether Bob Crosby or Patti Page should lend melody to a morning of hope. Of jolly days ahead.
“Let’s go with Bob tonight,” the Phandame said. A blue jay slipped a coin into the jukebox and slammed its beak on the play button. Bob Crosby’s tunes of happy times filled the air swarming the cloister with the odor of mead.
Reaching a wicket gate that faced the church, the Phandame leaped off the garden. She flew onto the gable roof of a courtyard house. Its scaffold cast shadows across the sand.
The Phandame framed with her fingers the light shining on the mattress and coming out of a window on the church’s front. Glass shards ran along the window frame, pointing at a plinth. It held what looked like a cross between a record player and a jack-in-the-box.
After giving a thumbs up to the mattress birds, the Phandame cocked her head up. She gazed at the star groups in the night-shining clouds. As usual, Octans and Sextans showed up, as if higher powers kept sizing the Phandame up. Thank Golly for the fighter jets in the distance, then. Burning and plunging across the polar stars as moving versions of Phoenix and Apus.
The Phandame rubbed her hands. Could new plane wrecks mean new results? A successful escape? The smoke trails the jets left behind gave mixed signals. As did the volley of laughter, shrieking, and sobbing from the parachuting pilots. Only one plane remained. It careened around the smoke trails and toward the island the church stood on.
As she strolled along the scaffold, the Phandame raised her arm and jerked it. The rattling of bead bracelets on her forearm summoned a pair of crows who flew out of the garret window.
“Would you be dears and fetch me her file?” the Phandame said, gliding toward the chimney pipe over the window. She pointed down at two book stacks on the window’s flower shelf. They flanked a taser and weighed down the pansy flowers under them. Both stacks bore sticky notes that read, “Escape Plan” and “Private Goods.”
The crows toppled the “Escape Plan” pile into the garret. Their catch from the field of binders and cookbooks? A clipboard with 2241 library trips’ worth of notes. One crow held the clipboard aloft in front of the Phandame. The other rifled through the pages of notes. Words like “failed escape paths” and “best welcome songs” flashed at the Phandame. The crow rifling the sheets stopped at a charcoal drawing of a woman, arms and legs spread wide.
Tracing her finger over the woman’s tartan poncho and wind pants, the Phandame glanced at notes flanking the drawing:
Shingles. Chimneys. Christmas lights under the gutters. All made way for townhouses and stilt houses. They sat on a cape. The breeze shaved wisps of mist off of the Phandame. It carried them into the fog sheet brushing the onion dome towers that rose over office buildings.
To most folks, a place grew on them through routines. But to the Phandame? She was the one doing the growth. Straight out of her former grooves, even.
Power poles linking roofs? Worth a decade in the orphanage.
Sewage pipes serving as water slides? Eight years of street-dwelling could whip that up.
Battering rams in building interiors? Grazie, 70 days of boot camping.
All there in the distance. Worth a moment of silence for the zoo bears and gorillas who had helped the Phandame do the heavy lifting. She nodded at her idea of an adventure playground. That was what society needed more of. Adventure. Taking risks. But folks balked at the unknown.
Good thing that the town edging the cloister proved less uptight. And devoid of folks.
The Phandame spotted a blue jay with a red bow tie. It weaved through the cables dangling from the power poles. “Chumlad!” She waved her arm. “Here, boy.”
Pulling his head back, Chumlad soared upward to the Phandame. His belly rubbed the courtyard house’s roof. With three bell tolls, the town’s clock tower punctuated Chumlad’s landing at the Phandame’s feet.
A blast in the plains behind the church rocked the cloister. Some shingles fell off the roof and into a dumpster near the wicket gate. Many woes abounding…
Bending toward Chumlad, the Phandame whipped a shawl out of her black blouse’s breast pocket. She wrapped it over her off-white chignon and tightened it around her freckles on her neck.
“Good timing,” the Phandame said. She looked over her shoulder at the smoke billowing behind the church. “How’re the streets shaping up? Trawler still by the pier?”
Chumlad chirped twice, nodding.
“Swollid.” The Phandame stared at the onion domes and stilt houses. She held her hands out to form mirroring “L”s with her thumbs and index fingers. “Arrow signs? Check. Street debris? Cleared.” She pointed at Chumlad. “Diesel for the boat?”
Chumlad shook his head.
“You tried peanut oil? Saw some at Sundry Helpings.”
Chumlad beckoned to the blue jays on the jukebox. They followed him and beelined through the townhouses. The feathers they left behind fell on the flagstone street. Its sidewalks sported arrow signs that read, “Escape Path.”
The Phandame gazed at the blue jays raking the last sand angel. Tossing the rakes onto the church’s stairs, they glided toward her, tweeting.
“Don’t you fret none,” she said, tapping her finger on the drawing’s limbs. “She’s as fit and tight as my wallet on Black Friday. No scurvies, tumors, or narcolepsy in her meat bag.” The Phandame pulled her head back. “Reckon divine salvation’s near.”
Divine. Heavens. When you’ve saved one of your fellow men or women, get back to me. You got 10 years, or else the limbo folks will be the ones taking you off my waitlist. Bet the Lord also said that to all them faces lining up at the pearly gates.
Before He had said faces wiped clean.
The Phandame stared at the handle mirror hanging from the chimney pipe. She pressed her thumbs on the googly eyes she glued onto her faceplate mask. So far, He had yet to carp about how she used the cosmetics she got to keep on her spectral person.
While the Phandame stuck a banana peel and carrot on her mask, oil beads trickled down the pipe. The smell of roasted legumes filling the air, the Phandame pulled her head back. She spied Chumlad, perched on the chimney’s flue cap. His feathers lay soaked in peanut oil. As if he gave a cook—one a dearth of army food left crazed—the slip while they went looking for the breading box they misplaced in the larder.
The Phandame turned to the crows, roosting on a deck chair atop the scaffold. They drew on parchment paper with a charcoal stick while holding the clipboard down.
After the Phandame whistled twice, the crows swooped in and out of the garret with a pail. They poured water into a pot sitting between the deck chair and a generator.
With the crows hopping onto the gutters, Chumlad flew off the chimney. He plunged into his idea of a bath. Water splashed onto the scaffold’s floorboards and washed the dirt on them away. He chirped twice while floating on his back.
“I’ll go easy on her,” the Phandame said, poking her carrot nose. She kneeled before the clipboard and traced her finger on the town’s parchment map. “Provided she doesn’t fall on her face near the finish line. And still has a leg to hop on.”
The Phandame’s finger dodged skull marks cutting through rows of squares for houses. She stopped at an eight-shaped building and beckoned to the crows. They flew off the gutters and onto the deck chair. Lying under the Phandame’s finger was a bunch of “FT”s dotting the building’s lower half. “What happened to the electric fence?”
The crow to her left cawed.
“To be fair, you overdid the voltage last time. Least we still got the taser.”
Chumlad sprang onto the pot’s rim and shook his head while tweeting.
“Which we only use in extreme cases.” She winked at the crows and held a finger to her banana peel mouth.
The crow to her right cawed.
“Yes, yoga helped her chill before, but then she forgot to, well.” The Phandame jogged in place while staring at the crows. She turned toward the blue jays in the garden. “Swell done, folks. Come here and unwind ’fore the rewind.”
The blue jays gathered around the Phandame. Chumlad fluttered to the “Private Goods” pile on the garret window. He pulled on a piece of paper sticking out of the pile’s middle, swinging his beak left and right. With the whole sheet in his beak, he winged toward the Phandame, who plopped down on the deck chair.
Turning toward Chumlad, who landed on the deck chair’s armrest, the Phandame eyed his catch. Crinkles and ink spots veiled some words on the sheet. Her heart fluttered at the sight of “bonding deep within” and “carve out your privy path.”
She stroked Chumlad with the back of her hand, letting her fingers run into him. “Not tonight,” she said. “We could once—”
The garden’s glass shards began shaking, sparing the Phandame from making a false promise. Enough bits lay about the place. But at least one could sweep those under the rug. Or let them float onto the church’s window.
“Let’s take it from the top!” she said, clapping her hands at the blue jays hopping about.
The birds craned their necks at the Phandame, who rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. The blue jays saluted her as they skipped to their spots on the gutters. Chumlad and the crows roosted on the deck chair’s armrests.
The shards fused with one another on the church’s window, clinking here and chinking there. Shingles slid across the roof and slotted themselves into their initial spots. The Phandame nodded at the sky. ’Twas nice of the higher powers to let her handle the garden while the folks upstairs reset the rest.
Besides, spending one’s time only with traps and escape props could prove inescapable.
With the last shard slotting into place, the stained-glass window revealed its story again.
The hash of beige and blue gave rise to a woman sporting a robe made from the most pristine soda-lime glass. Streaks of red dotted the woman’s neck as she clenched her teeth. She wielded a voice box that looked like the plinth’s jack-in-the-record-player meld. Music notes hopped out of the box’s horn instead of a clown. They latched onto a mass of black glass, a humanoid hunk of licorice-like tendrils. It towered over the woman. All within the backdrop of crimson panes and turquoise gemstones forming the countryside.
If myths could paint the world red, then it stood to reason that the Phandame could do the same for a town past its prime. And cap things off with little to none of the crimson stuff shed.
Chumlad and the blue jays flitted in front of the Phandame, holding a cardboard box by the flaps. They dropped it through her lap onto the deck chair and let themselves fall inside the box.
The Phandame craned her neck down and laced her fingers on her nape. “Sorry, heavens aren’t keen on smuggl—”
The birds let out nine tweets together as they hopped around the box.
She snapped her fingers. “Right. Can’t have her keel over again at my fumbling of words.” The Phandame cleared her throat and swung her arms back and forth to the blue jays’ chirping. “Pick-up, hop-up, shove-it-in-the-box. Pick-up, hop-up, shove-it-in-the-box.”
As the Phandame wrapped up her rehearsal, a shadow tiptoed into view behind the church window, standing at the robed woman’s side. It looked over both shoulders, as did the Phandame who mimicked its other rituals. Dusting the beret and poncho? Check. Throwing the scarf around the neck? Ditto. Wiggling fingers before grasping the plinth’s voice box? Another night of patter--
A ripple traveled across the cloister. It sent the shingles around the Phandame flying and falling. As if to mimic the waves that roared in the distance. The poncho figure swung its head left and right, its arms trembling as it held the voice box’s horn and crank.
“Right on cue.” The Phandame clicked her tongue twice. Swooping out of the garret were two blue jays with a bullhorn in their feet. They fluttered in front of the Phandame. She leaned toward the bullhorn’s mouthpiece and took a deep breath. Coming into view behind the window was another figure. One standing behind the mass of tendrils and whose body oozed tar dripping onto the floor. It eclipsed both its glassy peer and the poncho figure.
Much to the churchgoers’ dismay, their copying the divine gathering would come undone at the hands of the cloister’s padre.
“Now that you’ve revealed yourself,” the Phandame said in an echoing whisper, “can you flee with flesh and bones?”
Her pep talk rode with the wind blowing toward the church. The monster figure spread its arms over the poncho one. The latter began turning the crank, with the former shielding the sides of its cone head with its club-shaped hands. A round of gurgling, cackling, throat-singing, and sneezing echoed inside the church.
The jukebox’s tunes got lost in the crowd of crescendos, baritones, and basses. As for the voice box’s din, it looped around with the poncho figure fleeing the monster. The latter chimed in with growls as the two came in and out of view through the window.
The Phandame tittered, with the blue jays on the gutters spinning around to face her. “Reminds me of when the orphanage burned to the—”
The shattering of a thousand shards, years, and decibels of mythic hyperboles rocked the cloister. The poncho figure flew out the window and plunged onto the garden while grasping the voice box. Moonlight bounced off the shards of crimson and turquoise. It turned the cloister into the work of a disco ball spinning inside a pool. The brawl between the robed woman and the monster came to a head below the poncho figure. Bits of blue and black scratched one another in midair before settling on the mattress.
Which became the last place the poncho figure should land in. At least jets bore sturdy windshields to keep “flying blind” from getting too literal.
And unlike jets—which went out with a bang upon crashing—the poncho figure landed in one piece and with a muffled thud onto the sand. It missed the mattress by two book stacks’ worth of length. But like jets, the figure crashed face first.
“Ground,” the Phandame said, ending a tale that lost the blue jays’ attention.
What got their attention was the Fiend lunging out of the broken window while still shielding its ears. It spilled tar onto the sand, coating it with the stench of asphalt. It flew across the cloister, its roar filling the air. Upon clearing the roof on which the Phandame sat, the Fiend crashed into a supermarket’s roof. It vanished, its wailing fading with every step it took.
The Phandame turned to the poncho figure, who lay face down on the sand with their legs and arms spread wide. Along with the birds, the Phandame hopped off the scaffold and flew toward the figure. She landed in front of the voice box. It sat within arm’s reach of its owner. The Phandame spied dog tags inside the black beret that fell off the figure’s black crown braid. “Nadira Bathurst,” they read. The birds ringed Nadira, whom the Phandame studied.
“You know,” the Phandame said. “Taser can always—”
Chumlad spun around and chirped at a blue jay that stood on the garret window. The blue jay saluted before pushing the taser off the windowsill. It dropped into the gutters’ downspout. Chumlad wiped his wings, hopping past the Phandame with his head cocked up. The taser tumbled out of the downspout’s bottom hole and into a storm drain. Never mind that shoals of fish would now have to reroute themselves to stay out of harm’s way. Jets could’ve taken that hint.
“Right. Let’s not lose our heads.” The Phandame rubbed her hands as she neared Nadira, with her poncho giving off the smell of cheese. Standing on the tip of her toes and leaning toward Nadira, the Phandame held a hand next to her banana peel mouth. “Gesundheit.”
As the Phandame’s blessing soared past her mask, Nadira’s hands snapped to and gripped the voice box. Folding her knees while lying prone on her sand angel, Nadira swung her upper body and arms up. With the strength of a drill sergeant, she thrust the voice box into the Phandame’s chin. It sent her mix of googly eyes and fruity organs flying high.
This looked like a long night.
The Phandame’s head whirled over the garden in an arc that gave clear views of Octans, Phoenix. Along the void that was the sea… and her lack of patience.
Yes, flesh and bones bore amygdalae the size of melons.
No, heit and height meant distinct things.
Doubtful, though, that homophones would send body and head counts soaring. Less so when involving battery with voice boxes.
Not that ghosts can feel pain. The fleshly brand, at least. They too craved some me-time. Otherwise, what’d be the point of launching their heads of their own volition when given the chance? If only to vent their woes in midair. Noise pollution mattered less in the skies than on the streets. That the only thing that lured the Phandame’s past self into the Air Force?
Such a question would have to get an answer in another afterlifetime. The Phandame’s head bounced on the gutters and dumpster, derailing her train of thought before it left the station. As she settled on the sand, the blue jays rushed toward her.
“Can’t He give me another day?” the Phandame said. She eyed her headless self pacing after Nadira. The latter’s reek had mosquitoes swarming out of the storm drain. “Need some time to get my other self sorted out.”
Her head rolled along the footprints Nadira left behind while sprinting away from most of the Phandame. Plus the cheese buffs buzzing after Nadira.
With the cardboard box and a duct tape roll in their claws, the blue jays darted past the bugs. They flipped the carton, the flap end facing Nadira’s chasers. As the mosquitoes flew inside, the birds lowered the flaps. They sealed the box with duct tape before tossing it in the dumpster. Neat how one could befriend critters and teach them human teamwork. Shame it was the one thing the Phandame could bank on while helping a serial flunker.
Rolling backward in front of Nadira, the Phandame’s head said, “I see you’re getting your bearings. Head all right?”
Nadira pointed at the scar on her olive-skinned neck and waved her hands.
“Yup, I know of the vocal dis-cord tainting the earth. No, can’t explain my mask. Man Upstairs made me sign an NDA for it.”
Nadira hustled past the Phandame and toward the wicket gate with pursed lips and a frown.
“Oi! Forgot your gizmo.” The Phandame rolled over to her headless steed, who pointed at the voice box for the blue jays to pick up. As the Phandame’s body lay her hand on the sand for her head to hop on, Nadira jiggled the handle of the wicket gate. It refused to budge, with a horseshoe falling off the door top and onto Nadira’s head. She scampered toward a roller door.
The Phandame screwed her head back on while staring at Nadira. “Wouldn’t open that—”
Nadira flung the door open. Out came the clergy’s last hurrah before they went upstairs. As the blue jays lifted the voice box off the sand, a flood of mead swept Nadira away from the shutter door. It took her, along with cheese wheels and bread loaves pouring out, for a ride around the garden. The deluge rose to the Phandame’s chin, with the dumpster floating away from the wicket gate. It spun around the yard behind Nadira and the town’s chief food exports.
The Phandame facepalmed and sighed. “Clergies and their feasts.”
She sprang out of the flood and glided toward Nadira, who hopped inside the dumpster. The Phandame sat on the dumpster lid, dangling her legs and clearing her throat. “Nadira, right?”
Nadira nodded, holding her mouth ajar.
“Phandame.” She pointed at herself before spreading her arms at the birds flying behind her. “Chumlad and my circle of trust. Don’t mean to be curt, but we’ve lost…” She clicked her tongue. A crow hovered in front of her and held a pocket watch aloft while the Phandame glanced at it. “93 seconds. Let’s break the ice later.” She clapped her hands and pressed her palms together as the crow flew away. “Well, off to the races. Ready?”
Nadira raised her finger and unibrow as if wanting to excuse herself from the scheme the Phandame had in mind. When in doubt, look up… and take it up with those who made the loop to begin with. Careful not to end up on the Lord’s waitlist, though. Limbo of its own.
“Wunderbar.” The Phandame gave Nadira two thumbs up before gazing at the crows on the generator’s clips. “Let it rip, chums!” With the blue jays crowding the gutters, the Phandame turned to Nadira. “Don’t you fret, you’re the only one who can see and hear me.”
She bounded off Nadira’s abode. With a backward flip, she landed on the deck chair and snapped her fingers.
As the crows flipped the generator switch, Christmas lights lit one-by-one under the gutters. The cloister dripped with color, more so than the language merchants used to chase gamines away from their stalls. Who could blame the Fiends then for shushing folks on Judgment Day?
The Phandame beckoned to the blue jays with the bullhorn. She thrust her arms up as the bullhorn hung an inch away from her mask.
“Ladies and gentle fauna,” the Phandame said. “Mein freunds und amigos, welcome to the Great Escapade, Act 3652!” She slammed her hand on her collarbone and stretched out her other arm at Nadira. “Hosted by yours in the flesh, the Phandame. Frisking in the flood of mead, cheese, and pumpernickel is a believer in action over words. Give a round of tweets and wing-flapping to Naaaaaaaaaa-dira!”
The blue jays hopped along the gutters to the Phandame’s vowel-stretching. On top of the gutters’ rattling, the birds let out the same nine chirps as the cardboard bunch. Nadira shielded her ears at the assault on her most prized sense. Reckon the Air Force still left birds out of the “White Noise For Pilots” tape they made recruits listen to in their sleep.
“Right, here’s the gist.” The Phandame jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “There’s a boat on the other side of town. Trouble is, Fiend’ll get to you ’fore you reach the docks and it’ll be eat— Don’t bother, ran out of juice.” She waved her finger at Nadira, who shook her head and mouthed “No” as she turned the crank on the voice box. Nothing came out of the horn. “Anyhow, Fiend’ll be back in 21.7863 seconds. Can’t fix your voice, but least you can give that box of tunes a jolt at the hardware store. 15 Majonsie Street, third floor, first door to your right. Only question is, how will you take on the challenge? Speaking of which…”
The Phandame looked over her shoulder and nodded at the sight of the Fiend. It hopped from one roof to another, leaving tar to cling to the tiles and drip onto the street. The Fiend swung around one of the overhead power poles. Its tendrils became more of a blur with every swing. Five ticks on the Phandame’s pocket watch later, the Fiend let go of the pole. It launched itself toward the belfry and knocked the jukebox off of it.
Crosby relayed his words to the sea’s fauna with a splash punctuating the Fiend’s shrieking. A blast roared in the waters three ticks later. No din parachuted its way down.
Biting her lower lip, Nadira swung her head left and right at the Phandame and Fiend. Barring the gherkin jars clanging about in the dumpster, she found herself in a pickle.
A difference stood between wishing one’s troubles away and outrunning them. With the latter, one could put a gap between themselves and their woes. That way, they may figure out how to avoid having despair devour them. For the wishful thinkers, they’d be prancing in the beast’s belly before they got to thinking about defense mechanisms.
“Do us proud,” the Phandame said, pointing with crossed fingers at the sky.
The blue jays and crows flew down to Nadira. They pressed their claws against the dumpster’s back. With the Phandame’s finger snap, the birds put their trust in Nadira. By sending the dumpster rushing toward the wicket gate. The crunching of wood and splashing of mead fused with one another as the flood swarmed the street.
“And she’s off!” said the Phandame.
She sprinted up the roof and leaped off its ridge as the Fiend jetted by her. The wind cast glitter off of her sarong and onto the townhouses whose roofs the Fiend scoured across. The blue jays and crows circled the Phandame as she floated over the streets.
Like the Fiend itself, the flood plowed through anything in its path. Trash cans rushed out of alleys. Alarms went off to the shattering of the stores’ display windows. The whiff of cocoa tagged along with Nadira’s dairy odor as she sailed through a candy store. She came out with a mouthful of chocolate chip cookies, slipping the leftovers inside her pockets.
“Rolly Jancher,” the Phandame said, zooming past the Fiend and floating down to Nadira. “Beat the exit record by 0.129 seconds. The tension mounts. Or drops rather.”
Nadira spun her head toward the Phandame. The word “drops” flung the dumpster rider’s hazel eyes wide open. Was the Phandame suggesting that…
… the street Nadira sailed on hosted a steep gradient? As a sign dangling from a power pole stated, yes. To the tune of at least 30 degrees as Nadira flailed her arms on her downward trip. Striving to seek salvation.
The Phandame cracked up at Nadira’s mimicry of the former’s youth. Look at her, spreading her legs inside the dumpster and shifting her weight left and right. Steering herself inside the sewage pipes running under the onion dome towers. Only things missing are slamming into one’s former guardians and having to choose between jail and the Air Force.
The dumpster dropped off the pipes and onto a dirt road with shades of blue gracing stilt houses. The Phandame dashed toward Nadira and sat on the dumpster’s lid.
“Glad you picked up on the arrows,” the Phandame said. “How’s the rush of adrenaline?”
Nadira chattered her teeth and rocked her hand. Like the Fiend flinging hot dog stands at her, the mixed signals kept on coming.
“Feels like your life’s in motion, eh?” The Phandame chuckled and waved her hand. “None of that fatigue the others carried around.”
The flow of mixed signals paused with Nadira’s teeth and hand freezing in place.
“Well.” The Phandame shrugged. “I said 3652 back there.”
Nadira jumped out of the dumpster, voice box in hand. She landed onto the roof of a stilt house below her. A morning of hope. Of jolly days ahead. Wager she took Crosby’s hint back there. Carry on, chum, carry on.
“Attalass, bravo!” The Phandame eyed the blue jays and pointed at the cardboard box inside the dumpster for them to pluck. She turned back toward Nadira, who leaped onto another roof to dodge the Fiend’s landing on the first one. “Wait till the serotonin kicks in.”
Souls—dead or alive—took 10 years to master an art. What would 10 years of trial and error beget inside the hardware store Nadira reached upon rounding a corner? With luck, something other than hiding inside the storage room and wishing her woes away with Shavasana. What worked in the barracks proved clunky in chases.
“Reckon the tension’s now mounting, folks.” The Phandame stretched out her arms toward the store. “15 Majonsie Street lies ahead.”
As did a shadow that drifted along the store’s face, with the Fiend landing by the front door. Slamming its stump-shaped legs on the ground, it shook the rust flakes off the store’s walls. Plus the arrow sign sagging on a yarn thread from one of the third floor’s windows.
The Fiend raised its arms and changed its eye color to match the sky’s shade of purple. Only for the sign to fall onto the beast’s head before slotting itself onto the neck. The arrow spun like a roulette wheel and settled for left with a creak.
“Points in the right— I mean, left way for once.” The Phandame lifted a finger and glimpsed at the blue jays above her. “Fun fact: took my flock 2538—”
The Phandame lowered her gaze to the store. She craned her neck forward as Nadira dashed toward the Fiend lying on the ground. Stepping on the beast’s head—tar latching onto her army boots’ soles—she speeded along its spine. Reaching the Fiend’s rear end, Nadira dove through the window from which the arrow fell.
The Phandame spun her head toward Chumlad as she and the birds floated toward the window. “First time she did that?”
Chumlad rested on the windowsill and tweeted as he pointed at the hall of book carts and couches. The Phandame spied Nadira, who hustled inside the first doorway to her right. 15 Majonsie Street, third floor, first door to your right. Wait. Which right, though?
The Phandame cupped her hands around her mouth. “No, other right! That’s the way back.”
Fire bursts shot out of the doorway and lit the hall to the expelling of gas. The way back turned into a point of no return. Would it have hurt to put up a “No Entry” sign? Then again, what’d be the chances of Nadira getting her feet tarry—and more than warm—after paying that last arrow no mind? The fireworks fizzing out of the doorway gave less than glowing signals that painted the hall red, green, and blue.
The Phandame sighed. “Swollid.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder as she glided toward the doorway. “Look after our chum while I have a word with the other.”
Soaring into Nadira’s idea of first doors to her right, the Phandame glanced down at the floor. Its planks teemed with tar blots and scorch marks. Yup, had first time all over it, what with all the boot prints the Fiend could follow once it came to.
The Phandame eyed the flamethrowers and firework rockets. They hung on the ceiling and spilled sparkles that bounced on the walls. She groaned at the crows’ work gone to flames. Like the plane her pre-Phandame self crashed onto the island, then. Except someone else stood on the receiving end, but at least Nadira came out in one piece. The smell of smoked cheese and stomping of boots down the hall concurred with the Phandame.
A door slam boomed around the corner. The Phandame turned toward the hall windows facing a courtyard. Through the fog and behind an atrium shone a moving light orb. As it neared the end of the atrium, the light guttered and shrunk. It sprang out of a window as a cloth ball. It bounced and settled on the lawn, flames dying out on the ball.
The Fiend’s moaning echoed behind the Phandame. Clenching her fists, she glided through the wall and across the yard. While slipping through a window, she raised and jerked her arm. Her beads’ rattling summoned the crows from a hole in the ceiling.
“Any ideas?” she said. “In case the voice box keels over.”
Both crows pointed their wings at a hole on the wall to her left.
The Phandame gazed past shacks down the hill the store sat atop. At the bottom of the snaking corniche stood a pylon sign that read, “Sundry Helpings.” Another point of no return.
“Can we still pull the taser out of the drin—”
The word “taser” must have ruffled all the town’s feathers, for Chumlad swooped in from the wall’s hole. He chirped and jutted his head at the Sundry Helpings sign. As the Phandame rounded a corner, Nadira came into view. She put out the fire on her V-neck sweater with her beret.
“As long as the battery’s still there, I wouldn’t fret ’bout showing the rough bits to her.”
The Phandame whooshed toward Nadira, who followed the arrows on the walls. Reckon the flamethrowers deterred her from winging it for now. Golly knew the number of runs Nadira’s improv came crashing down in.
The Fiend’s crashing onto the roof set off the sprinklers in the hall. Nadira doffed her beret and held it over her eyes, shielding them from the downpour. She dodged battering rams—the words “For Fiend Only” etched on them—she set off via the pressure plates she stepped on. The Phandame clapped her hands and floated in front of Nadira.
“Okay, the flamethrowers, that I can explain,” the Phandame said. “You ought to lure—”
Nadira swung the voice box at the Phandame’s mask. The latter yanked her head off like a cork and held it by the hip. After five failed swings at the limbs, Nadira waved her hand at the Phandame, who screwed her head back on. Nadira nodded while jogging down some stairs.
“Bit callous, yes,” the Phandame said. “Bet you want to put down a weakened beast instead of it putting you down.” She pointed at a shadow. It streaked down the stairs Nadira got off of.
The Fiend crashed onto the floorboard at the stairs’ bottom. Wood chunks flitted about. Nadira rounded a corner, dodging board wedges that nailed themselves into a wall. The blue jays and crows swooped out of the floorboard’s dust cloud and hovered at the Phandame’s side.
“This one’s looking more and more like a winner,” said the Phandame. “The conqueror of patterns, slayer of naysayers, maverick of mavericks. Of which title is she worthy on this Trinity Sunday? May the ménage à trois—” She glanced at the Fiend crying out something that sounded like “four.” Albeit with the vowel stretching like how the Fiend tugged on Nadira in the last run. Good thing death led to a mindwipe for her ahead of the next sprint. “Quatre be our witness!”
Four corner turns later, Nadira reeled into an office space. A maze of cubicles stretched across the wool floor. Made the cloister look like a sandbox. One with sand angels instead of skeletons clogging the cubicles’ aisles.
“Don’t you fret none,” the Phandame said, hovering upside down in front of Nadira. “Most of them didn’t have me when they tried making the trek.” She crossed her arms as Nadira wiped her aquiline nose and sighed. “Can let them off for not knowing orders that the rest ignored.”
Like her cloister entrance—no, exit—the corners of Nadira’s full lips fell down. For once, she kept her chin up when she hared off through the Phandame and down the middle aisle. The Fiend’s stomping grew louder.
Spinning upright, the Phandame beckoned to the birds gliding into the room. The Fiend plowed through the doorway and sent concrete blocks flying.
The overture of flying paper sheets and chairs—a swan song for the office’s lapsed dwellers—punctuated the Fiend’s ape-like shuffle. Grinning like caretakers in an ad photo, Nadira sprinted through the aisles. She kept heeding the arrows hanging on the ceiling lamps.
“Jump. Slide under table. Jump. Topple file cabinet. Jump. Roll over cereal bar and throw milk bottle at Fiend.” The Phandame hurled her pearls of wisdom at Nadira, who made the advice manifest. The latter swerved around the couches and coffee brewers the Fiend chucked at her. “Knees.” A swipe from the Fiend carved a cubicle in half and shredded Nadira’s beret as she ducked to the Phandame’s cue.
“And to cap it all off.” The Phandame stretched out her hand toward a battery pill. It sat on a workbench and read, “VB Battery.” Nadira glared at the Phandame while tapping her naked crown and dashing by. Least she still had the voice box… and a head.
The Phandame held her fist high and lifted a finger. “Pick up.”
Nadira ducked under the Fiend’s swing. It tore down the wall of windows in front of her. She grabbed the battery as it rolled off the workbench.
“Hop up.” Two fingers.
Nadira hopped over a swipe that cleaved some wool tufts off the floor.
“Shove it in the box.” Three fingers.
Nadira turned to face the Fiend, thrusting the battery into the voice box’s battery hole--
—only for the Fiend to slap the voice box off Nadira’s hands. Cogs and springs burst out of the box as it split into woodchips, which the blue jays dodged. The cardboard box they held in their claws swung left and right to the buzzing of mosquitoes. The battery bounced in one piece on the corniche.
Three sagging fingers. If only the battery’s location got spared from the loop resets.
With her mouth and eyes flung open, Nadira swung her head toward the voice box’s remains. They rolled into tussocks edging the corniche. The Phandame pinched her nose and shook her head at the pickle she found herself in.
To her left, a dolt unable to take a hint across runs.
On her right? An oaf close to punching both Nadira’s and the Phandame’s ticket.
And her center? Fingers the Phandame snapped, rounding up the blue jays in front of her.
“Let ’em rip.” The Phandame spread her arms at the Fiend.
The birds brought the box to the Fiend’s face, with Chumlad wedging himself between both parties. Slitting the duct tape with his beak, Chumlad swung the flaps open. And out came Nadira’s former stalkers. Bloodsuckers from all corners of the town’s sewer system buzzing out. As if to say, “Had your fun, Nadi-lass, now let us have ours!”
The Phandame beckoned to Nadira, who turned to her guide. “You’ll find some other way,” she said, jutting her head at the Fiend. “Pay it no min—”
In its bout of lurching, the Fiend knocked Nadira off the floor with its rear end. While the Fiend flailed its tendrils at the bugs, Nadira rolled down into the tussocks. This no longer looked like a long night. It just became one.
Shaking her head, the Phandame whistled to the blue jays. She pointed at the Sundry Helpings sign down the hill. “Arrow setters, you’re up.”
Nodding, the blue jays flew out of the office room. They plucked the arrow signs hanging from power lines running across the corniche. Chumlad rested on a rebar piece sticking out of the wall’s hole. With his wings pressed together, he bowed to the Phandame with a chirp.
“Don’t thank me yet.” The Phandame eyed Nadira, who limped out of the tussocks and plucked the battery on the corniche. She vanished with the blue jays and their arrows further down the tarmac. “If your idea of shock doesn’t get to her, then the Fiend will.” The Phandame patted Chumlad, her hand going through his head. “Let’s hope for the best.”
She leaped through the hole, gliding downhill. Hovering over shacks and car wrecks, the Phandame nodded to each of Chumlad’s tweets.
“Right,” the Phandame said, nodding. “‘I don’t want you to end up like your past selves,’ not ‘do you want to end up like your past selves?’ Less daunting.”
If only the same applied to Sundry Helpings. Sure, the town made for the urban analog of a Black Friday wallet. Yes, the view of icebergs strolling around skerries beat that of shacks. But anyone who tasted the skies as a pilot or passenger would rule out an airliner’s front half resting atop a crag. An airliner billing itself as “the spot to be for sticking it to your ribs.”
What did the sign mean by “it”? A riddle the Phandame and Nadira would take to their graves. Unless the latter tumbled off the cliff and let the rocks below punch her ticket. In which case, the boys and girls in blue could sit the pronoun case out and tend to more gruesome matters.
Reaching the Sundry Helpings sign, the Phandame landed on the makeshift front porch. As she waltzed through the batwing doors, the tang of fries and roast beef slipped under her mask. The tweeting of blue jays and rustling of the hedgerow facing the joint drew closer. With Chumlad standing on the porch stairs, the Phandame sized up the place like a pearly gatekeeper.
Lightbulbs winked and hung on a pennant strip stretching across the ceiling. Floorboards sat nailed on the bar countertop and rose to the overhead bins. #1 gloves—which ought to read 3652—lay on the checkered floor. They ran between the bar stools and standing dining tables.
Everything one needed to lead their guest’s gaze to one thing and one thing only. The showstopper leaned against the bay windows in the back.
Ponchos. Berets. Scarves. Still clinging to the skeletons of Nadira Past. The ones the Fiend vomited on land instead of underwater at least. All blending together in a pile for the Great Escapee to witness. But by Golly, this Nadira will yield to no Fiend. She can make it out. Must make it out.
The Phandame spun on her heel and stretched out her hands, palms out, as Nadira limped through the doors. She stroked her right knee, panting and shaking her head at the Phandame.
“I don’t want you to end up like your past selves,” the Phandame said, pressing her hand on her collarbone. “Or me.” Chumlad flew with the other birds through the doorway and toward her. “That sounded all right?”
Chumlad nodded. As the Phandame stepped toward the dining tables, Nadira squinted at her past remains. Where would the ball land on the roulette wheel? The red of doubt? The black of panic? Or the green of acceptance?
Fists clenching, brows raising, teeth grinding… The tension rose and fell before plateauing to the hanging of Nadira’s head. The ball picked up momentum against all the odds and evens, catching fire and leaping out of the wheel head.
The Phandame would have to go easier on her curveball-tossing. Please try again.
“No more toying. Cards on the table.” the Phandame said. The birds let themselves fall on the tables. “I understand how… parched, you are. For answers. And how I could’ve, um, done a better job at adjusting you to all this.” She clasped her hands. “But whatever you—”
Forks clinked on the tables the blue jays flew off of. Lightbulbs shook, the shadows they cast wobbling around the joint. Pint glasses sprang off the floor along with Nadira, who gripped a bar stool as her body flew upward. The Phandame rooted herself on the spot amidst the chaos, her hands still clasped. Wind gusts rippled her body from mask to sandals. As for the birds, they bounced off suitcases falling out of the bins. Everything settled and quieted. For 2.137 seconds.
Tendrils burst through the doorway and the Phandame’s inner clock. The Fiend spread its arms wide, sending both porch halves flying away from one another. It slammed its tendrils on the floor, causing the plane wreck to rumble and seesaw back and forth. Forth got steeper to the skeletons’ rattling and the bay windows’ swooshing open. The suitcases dove out of the joint alongside Nadira’s remains. Her past ones.
As the plane neared a street-like gradient and its walls creaked, Nadira turned to the Fiend. She sighed as the latter pounced toward Nadira, arms stretched out--
“Duck!” the Phandame said.
—with Nadira dropping prone on the floor. The Fiend whooshed over her and plunged into the crag’s bottom. A whimper echoed below as Nadira rushed out of the wreck and onto the clifftop. The plane gave in to forth, joining the Fiend and the remains of Nadira Past downstairs. The Phandame, floating in midair, gawked at the wreck crashing into the shore.
It hushed the Fiend with a cross between a splash and a thud.
She spun around and glided with the birds toward Nadira. The latter jutted her head at an iceberg and slammed her fist on her other palm.
“Want to break the ice there?” The Phandame pointed at a trawler sitting by a pier further along the crag’s bottom.
Under the aurora australis and the crunch of grit, Nadira strolled down the corniche and whipped out a notepad, pen, and cookies from her back pocket. She scrawled on paper, the smell of cookie dough wafting off of it as she ate.
The Phandame glided backward while facing Nadira and the blue jays. They trekked past graveyards whose dwellers took care to rest a cloister’s worth of space away from the cliff edge.
Jets whizzed along the horizon of skerries and icebergs. The contrails that the planes left behind rose toward and meshed with the cumulus clouds veiling the sky. The whoosh of jets used to make the Phandame’s hands damp and tense. As if sky prowlers could spot street thieves below. But now they made up much of the music to her ears.
“Quite the name you carry,” the notepad read as Nadira held it up to the Phandame’s face.
“Yup,” the Phandame said. “‘Phandame’ ’stead of good old ‘Phantom.’ Pet name tailed me all ’round. Orphanage, streets, Air Force.” She plucked her head off her neck and spun it on her forefinger. “And in death. Wouldn’t call myself a dame, but I guess all it took was my ghosting past folks.” To the cue of a tongue click, her head leaped off her finger and back onto her neck.
Bells pealed four times beyond the hill of pansy flowers edging the graves. The Phandame jerked her thumb up as the fourth toll rang. “Never tolled four times till now.”
Chumlad and the blue jays dropped onto the tarmac, hopping backward. They clapped their wings and chirped while facing Nadira. With a nod, the Phandame gave Nadira a round of applause. The boot camp folks. Most of the kids at the orphanage and on the streets. Even they denied the Phandame such praise. Perhaps by giving it, she may get some of her own soon.
As Nadira’s pen slid off the pad, the Phandame sailed to her. She leaned over and eyed the pad. “Bet you and I learned the art of… resolve,” it read.
“So yes,” the Phandame said, “10 years in this loop, you and me. Could have made me go ’round the bend were it not for my aides. Lord’s token of trust.” She waved her arm at the blue jays. “Gave me a chance to learn ’bout the world, new lingos, arts. Counting that of, yes, resolve. Got stacks of notes back at the church. Crows will bring in soon. Shame what you would call real learning came after the tactile facts.”
Least her curiousness about life made the cut in the afterlife. Spending one’s years in places where folks deemed knowledge to be a threat to the honing of “sound character” could numb the senses. But with some luck—and a lockpick or two to flee the orphanage—one could go off the beaten path. See what was around the corner and sate their curiousness.
But would they still be sure of their pursuit when death stuck its foot out from around the corner and made its next client trip?
Nadira scrawled away at her pad and held it out to the Phandame, who glanced at it. “Think the Lord should have let you off?” it read.
The Phandame shook her head and laced her fingers on her nape. “Nah, He means well. Heaven’s chockful of folks. So He beefed up entry rules by giving every lad and lass this ‘Save Your Souls’ test to weed out the sloths. Lots of those in Hell already.” She pointed at the tarmac. “Leaves me with Limbo if I muck my last shot up. 10 years. 3652 nights. Daunting at first. Then the stress wears off with each of your rebirths ’fore new runs.”
Nadira gulped while pulling on her collar.
“Don’t you fret. All’s well that ends… on a high note.” The Phandame pointed at the sky before jutting her chin at a freight elevator by the cliff edge. “You first.”
Leaning over the grape stake fence by the corniche, Nadira cocked her head down. The elevator led toward a T-shaped pier at the crag’s foot, which bore a boat’s black shape. A tool shed—its twin doors wide open—sat in front of the pier. Through the horizon’s clouds, stars twinkled. As if calling to the Phandame and Nadira.
Nadira gave the elevator’s shutter door an upward nudge and peeked under the doorway’s gap. Nope, no surprise fluids. She rolled the door all the way up and stepped inside. The Phandame hovered forward and stood under the door. She spun to the townhouses and the church that lay over and behind the hill. ’Twas their turn to loom over her, not the reverse.
11 years, eh? Last time she roamed the town’s streets while on leave from duty. When folks filled the alleys, not blessed chow and booze. Those still roamed the streets… inside folks’ guts.
Goosebumps turned up on the Phandame’s arms as the chinking and clinking of glass arose from the church. Yet Nadira still stood on her two feet. This was it. No more helpings for both women. No more dumpster-, wheelchair-, or skeleton pile-riding for Nadira.
Fencing oneself in for years on end? That would have to run its course.
The Phandame eyed Chumlad and the blue jays at her feet. They wrapped their wings around each other in a ring. Like street kids before fanning out and thieving about. With the circle breaking off, Chumlad wheeled to the Phandame with a tweet.
The Phandame kneeled before him. “Ja, I’m glad too that the Lord paired me with you.”
Three tweets and a bow.
“I wouldn’t call you fat. Or a lady. But yes, let’s see it through. Will put in a good word for you up there. Hope He pairs you all with someone just as… resolved.”
Nadira clicked her tongue, with the Phandame standing up and hovering inside the elevator. The blue jays lined up by her against the side with the mosquito screens.
A poster hung on the door Nadira rolled shut. It showed the island’s outline, with cartoons of athletes hustling along the contour’s edge. Farmers digging into the island’s center. Priests lurching about onion domes while downing mugs of mead and sticking their tongues out. Below the island and figures, a few words. “Madundee: The South Atlantic’s Gem.”
To think Madundee once stood as a haven for refugees. Once hosted a tight-knit bunch of folks who moved on. Farmers. Athletes. Quirky clergies. Souls lusting for enlightenment and joy.
More of a gem in the rough now.
Nadira punched the control board’s “DOWN” button. The light bulb above the door turned red. Its hue cast all over the elevator car. Roars pierced the air behind the Phandame and Nadira. They stared at the horizon as the elevator buzzed in its descent.
Against the swirling clouds, blots leaped off the bergs and latched onto the jets darting above them. The planes plunged into the sea. As the waters lit up with the jets’ exploding upon impact, the bergs cast long shadows over the sea.
The smells of rust from the door and cookies from Nadira mingled inside the elevator as it slid into a half-pipe tunnel. The view of the sea made way for that of cracked cement and steel bars twisting like corkscrews. As the light bulbs on the elevator’s guide rails dimmed, the air dampened.
Town may’ve harbored ex-pilots, for the elevator screamed “cockpit.” Least sore backs and rear ends didn’t make the ghostly cut.
Besides, those with cramps bore slim lifespans in the air.
“How’s the war going?” the Phandame said. “You miss the skies by now?”
Through some holes on the tunnel pipe, Nadira glimpsed at the fire strips on the sea. She bit her lower lip and hung her head as she rocked her pen hand.
The Phandame sighed. “Yup, rigid folks can get you there when you give them power.”
Nadira swung her head and shook her finger at the Phandame with a frown.
The Phandame waved her hand at Nadira. “I know you did— aren’t the sort that the zealots can sway with ease.” She glanced at Nadira, who shook all over as she crossed her arms and gripped them with her hands.
Teeth chattering, legs fidgeting, eyes twitching… It will take more warming up to break the ice and have Nadira ward off cold feet.
“Oi.” The Phandame bumped her fist onto Nadira’s arm. “You made it this far. Well, never this far till now.”
Nadira’s lips quivered as she traced her thumb over them.
“Want to tell me why you flew away ’fore you crashed near the church?”
With a pout, Nadira crossed her arms.
“Don’t fret, zilch judgment on my part.”
Nadira raised a brow and leaned against the wall between the door and the control board. Her eyes swung down at the notepad before she scribbled away at it. While she stared at the birds, Nadira held her notes to the Phandame’s mask.
“Army rations got on me nerves,” the notes read. “Can’t think—or shoot—straight with a void stomach. Thought I could refuel with what I could find on this rock. Next thing I knew ‘fore the crash, my peers hurled threats at me. Called me names. Deserter this, traitor that.”
The Phandame blew a raspberry. “Their loss. Had barbs chucked my way too when I still bore flesh and bones. ‘Oh, don’t mind that greedy klutz.’ ‘Lord, what have we done to end up with her?’” She shrugged and shook her head.
Nadira uncrossed her arms. Slipping the pen and notepad back in her pocket, she laced her fingers on her nape and pressed her foot on the wall. She mouthed, “Go on.”
After giving her a thumbs-up, the Phandame copied Nadira’s pose and eyed the birds on the floor. “My take on your woes is this. Each soul has its quirks. Fewer still act upon them.”
With a nod, Nadira scratched the beauty marks on her chin.
“True, your going astray back there threw a wrench into my scheme.” The Phandame jerked her thumb over her head. “And a Fiend onto your plane while you played hooky on your mates.”
Nadira pursed her lips and shrugged.
“And yet.” The Phandame spread her arms at Nadira. “Still with us. Well, in the flesh, at least.” She glided in front of Nadira. “Got you some food. For thought. Don’t be a jumping jack. Be a leaping Armstrong.” She tapped her temple. “Y’ought to keep thinking on your feet to join the greats in all places. Army, Heaven, anywhere but Limbo… or street gangs. Want to go off the beaten path? Great. Wish to show that Fiend the doo— window? Greater. Want to do all that with your fellow lads and lasses? Greatest. On a figurative level.”
Looking away from the Phandame and bobbing her head left and right, Nadira let one of her lips’ corners curl up.
“Ah, aaahhh.” The Phandame pointed at Nadira’s face while nodding. “You believe it, eh?”
With a grin and closed eyes, Nadira threw her hands up.
As the elevator left the tunnel, moonlight shone on Nadira’s face. Picture the sight of a human smile—one free of fruity rot—for the first time in years. To think all it took to have serotonin rush through her veins was a heart-to-heart. Provided all that cookie dough didn’t clog said veins. How much food did Nadira stuff in her pockets to start with?
The guide rails’ rattling ceased as the elevator slid down a hole on the tool shed’s roof and touched down on floorboards. They creaked under the elevator’s heft. As the light bulb above the control board turned green, Nadira rolled the shutter door open.
“Right, therapy over,” the Phandame said. She clapped her hands. “I’d say you’re in sound shape.” She jutted her chin at the tool shed’s doors that led to the pier. “Shall we?”
Nadira took a deep breath and marched out of the elevator. She rounded one of its corners to face the doors to the pier.
A trawler lay moored by the pier. A striped pennant banner that read, “You did it, Nadira!” drooped under the outriggers. They stretched across the trawler and hung from the mast on the main deck caked in grime. A tarp sheet lay pegged by the stern’s gunwale, shrouding crates of fishing nets and rods. The tarp bulged in and out as the waves crashed against the hull. They washed away the seaweeds under the stern’s gunwale, which bore the words “Firm and Mint.”
Beyond the pier, bergs loomed over and crashed into skerries while drifting about. A jet nose poked out of a berg like Nadira’s head inside the Fiend’s mou--
The Phandame slapped herself in the cheek before the 2454th ghost of Nadira Past reared its head. And only its head.
The pier’s planks bent under Nadira’s footsteps. She padded out of the tool shed and toward the trawler. Stepped into the shadow that the crag cast on the dock. A fog sheet skimmed across the water and ringed the pier. Rumbling echoed to the Phandame’s and Nadira’s right.
They turned to a sewage pipe sticking out of a rocky corner on the crag.
A stream of mead, cheese wheels, and bread loaves gushed out of the tube. Sparkling within the flood were electric arcs. They pierced the water around the pier as the orgy fare touched down on the stiffs of mackerel floating belly up to the surface. A taser gun shot out of the stream. It hopped from one bread loaf to another till it settled on a cheese wheel that sailed past the pier.
Nadira’s eyes widened as she mouthed, “Well, I’ll be.”
“Huh,” said the Phandame, crossing her fingers on the small of her back. “Flood must have gone through 15 Majonsie.” She waved her other hand in front of Nadira’s slack-jawed face.
Nadira turned to the Phandame, who beckoned to Chumlad and the blue jays behind her. The birds swooped out of the tool shed with a jerrycan in their claws.
The Phandame said, “See that Firm and Mint’s, uh, firm and mint before she leaves.”
With a tweet, Chumlad fluttered alongside the other birds toward the trawler’s cabin doorway. They dropped the jerrycan on a hook at the mast’s base and left it swinging. The jerrycan settled on the hook. Oil dripped out of the can’s spout and plinked onto the floor.
With the trawler’s engine revving, the blue jays pushed a mop bucket cart out of the cabin. Jugs of water and mop detergent bumped against the plastic bucket’s sides and the mop itself.
“They’ll guide you on your way out.” The Phandame wrapped her arm around Nadira’s shoulders. She held her other hand out to the trawler. “See?”
The blue jays poured the jugs’ contents on the vinyl floor. While mopping the grime away, some blue jays knocked—with the stick end of the mop—the jerrycan that hung from the mast’s hook. It spilled oil over Chumlad and two more birds while they pulled the cart around the deck.
Nadira’s brows furrowed. She sniffed the air, swinging her head left and right.
“Peanut oil,” the Phandame said. “Always— From time to time, I cooked meals with it. Can’t beat that smell. Or its knack for making folks slip when you need to, uh, give them the slip.”
Caws echoed on Nadira’s and the Phandame’s left. They glanced at the crows, who winged their way down from the crag’s top. Their claws wrapped around knotted strings that held a paper stack together for each pair of claws. As they hovered over the pier, the crows let go of the bundles, which landed with a thud on two mooring bollards that fringed the trawler’s gangway.
The Phandame ambled to the stack with the “Escape Path” sticky note. “’fore we part ways.” She turned to the crows. “Odyssey files, please.”
The crows unknotted the “Escape Path” stack with their beaks. As the threads fell to the side, wind puffs blew on the pier. They pushed back the sheets bound to the clipboard that sat on the stack. The rifling of pages flashed the words “Traps I’ve Yet to Use” before the crows pressed their claws down on a map of Madundee and its outskirts.
The Phandame and Nadira kneeled on opposite ends of the stack. They stared at the map. At the slew of charcoal arrows that snaked through frowning faces and toward a popcorn-shaped cloud with lines that shot out from under it. The cloud bore the words “Road to Deliverance.”
The Phandame snapped her fingers at the map. “In a nutshell, follow this here path.” She tapped on the snaking lines. “Left, right, two lefts, right, left, two rights. Bergs can pop in on a whim. So when in doubt, wing it. Or, uh, swim it.”
Nadira pinched her nose bridge. Six blinks later, she circled the stack and stood at the Phandame’s side to get a better view of the map. To stand still in front of the Phandame for three more blinks would’ve had the stray doves overhead confuse Nadira for a statue. Before… letting go of their burdens on her sweater. She had enough trouble with the night’s chill as it was.
“Quite the nut to fit in your shell, eh?” The Phandame stroked Nadira’s face. “We square?”
Nadira nodded, her gaze still on the map.
“Swollid. Now if there’s something else you need me to—”
Chirps and the flapping of wings arose behind the Phandame. She spun on her heel.
Chumlad pointed a wing at a sheet that sat on top of the “Private Goods” stack, which the crows unknotted. Grabbing the paper with his beak, Chumlad winged to Nadira. The crows sat on the piles to keep the sheets from going skinny-dipping.
The Phandame clenched her fists. “Chumlad, what’s it to you?”
Nadira held her hand out and grabbed the sheet from Chumlad.
“Nadi-lass,” the Phandame said, “y’ought to—”
Nadira flashed her palm at the Phandame while her other hand’s thumb slid down the sheet. The frown on her face gave way to raised brows and a mouth held ajar. As she reached the last line on the sheet, Nadira’s eyes watered. She placed her hand on her mouth. Tears rolled down her plump cheeks. Nadira gazed at the Phandame and mouthed with a smile, “Beautiful.”
Beautiful words, yes. But they were just that: words. Words that one of the other orphans, Marsha, shared with the Phandame while washing the plates. Words from a time best left behind.
Nadira wiped the tears with the back of her hand and penned lines on her notepad.
“Crows!” said the Phandame. Her temples throbbed as she pointed at the pad.
The crows tore the sheet off the pad with their beaks. They brought it to the Phandame, who craned her neck forward and eyed the notes.
“Where did you get those words?” the sheet read. “Can you sing them for me? Did they help—” A squiggle stuck out of the cursive “p” and tore through the sheet.
The Phandame stared at Nadira. The latter flicked her eyes back and forth between the sheet and the Phandame. As Nadira stepped toward and reached out to the Phandame, the latter took four steps back. The Phandame crossed her arms and turned to face away from Nadira. She sighed and hung her head, her shoulders slouching. “It’ll help you. To leave.”
Nadira’s shadow streaked across the pier under the Phandame’s feet. It dropped its arm to its side and shook its head before it pulled back from the Phandame’s view. Shivers traveled up the Phandame’s spine as the gangway clattered under Nadira’s footsteps. Any higher and cooler than that, and the Phandame’s head would have become a snow globe.
Nadira hopped onto the trawler, map in hand. She pulled the gangway onto the deck and lay it under a life raft hanging on the starboard side of the cabin’s exterior. Glaring at the Phandame, Nadira untied the moorings on the bollards and strode inside the cabin.
The Phandame spied the crows, perched on the stacks. “See her out,” she said as she waved at the crows. “Give her all my notes too. Token of trust.”
The crows cawed and knotted the piles’ strings before they swooped off the pier and toward the trawler. They hauled the stacks with their claws. The trawler circled the dock and held its course toward the skerries. As the trawler made a left, right, and two lefts, the wreck of Sundry Helpings drifted out of the crag’s corner where the sewage pipe lay.
The Phandame cocked her head up. She stared at a hole in the clouds that housed Octans and Sextans. The star groups twinkled as if they used celestial Morse code to relay, “Tsk-tsk.”
Gosh darn— Gosh darling. Could you blame one for wanting to flee the streets and seek honest thrills via the Air Force? To quest for life?
Once you turn 18 and learned how to behave with sound character--
When you fetch me ‘nough loot from those with “sound character”--
Once you’ve paid your dues to society with service in the Air Force--
When you’ve saved one of your fellow men or women--
The head of the orphanage, the gang leader, the drill sergeant, the Lord… They meant well. Even if their tips bore the value of a shower curtain salesperson’s wallet.
I’ll get back to you. Just set me free once the dust settles.
As did the Phandame’s answer to said advice.
From a picnic basket on the orphanage’s doorstep to a rent jet for a casket. The Phandame must’ve made for tragicomic gold. But even tragicomedies and happy endings could get along.
The Phandame sat on the pier’s edge and let her feet dangle. Water pattered out behind her. She glimpsed over her shoulder at raindrops that washed away Nadira’s tarry boot prints on the pier’s planks. The pattering quickened and the fog dispersed, which revealed more of the bergs and skerries in the distance. New sights and sounds, yes. But new results? A successful escape?
A chirp to the Phandame’s left. Chumlad winged to her, his dark frame contrasting with the aurora australis weaving through the clouds. He landed onto a bollard next to the Phandame.
“Think I should have humored her?” the Phandame said as she stared back at Chumlad. She stroked the googly eyes and carrot nose on her mask. “That why it’s yet to come off?”
With a nod and a tweet, Chumlad stroked the bracelets on her wrist.
The Phandame sighed and got on her feet. “Think I’ll catch up to her.” She turned to face the trawler as it made the first of two rights. “Two of us might get some luck out of my ode—”
She spotted the Sundry Helpings plane wreck floating past a berg—topped with a jet wreck—and toward the trawler. Nadira scooted out of the trawler’s cabin and leaned over the starboard gunwale. She backed away when the blue jays and crows chirped and cawed behind her.
“Nadira!” The Phandame waved her arms at the trawler.
Nadira screwed her head toward the pier.
“Get back in the—”
Tendrils shot out of the water. Nadira leaped backward before the tentacles clutched the gunwale. They yanked the wreck toward the trawler, smashing into the stern. Water gushes soared over and plunged onto the deck, soaking Nadira and the birds. Emerging from the water was a coned head. A bellow drowned the birds’ din. Made the flood on the deck look like a few raindrops.
And more than a few raindrops steered the Lord’s curveball. What came as a drizzle first became a downpour eight blinks later. Sunlight gleamed through and rimmed the horizon’s clouds.
There was that one time, during a sun shower, when one of the Phandame’s fellow pilots said “the devil’s beating his wife.” Were he by her side now, he’d swap “beating” for “smashing.” And it wouldn’t be tears that fell. Nothing about the Lord’s curveball looked smashing.
Mist rose in front of the Phandame. She cocked her head down and gazed at her sandals and toes that flaked in the air. The dissolving reached her heels as the pier grew dark from the rain.
Shoulders tensed. The hair on her nape stood up. Sweat beads rolled down her arms and onto her bracelets. The Limbo folks homed in on her, and they could taste it. Flake by flake.
The Phandame pulled her head back to eye the trawler that rocked back and forth to the Fiend’s shoving. She popped her knuckles and cracked her neck. Nadira taking shelter in the cabin? Check. Fiend biting the mop bucket cart to test its gob before the main course? Check, as much as one wished that weren’t the case. Ship sailing through rough but open waters? Clear…
… which’d be the case were it not for a berg that drifted onto the trawler’s path and donned a jet wreck on its tip. The Phandame hopped onto the sea as her train of thought neared the station. The same way the Montparnasse derailment came to be.
“No, nada, niet, non, la, nein, nee!” The Phandame and Chumlad dashed across the water and to the trawler. Like contrails, a wall of mist brought up the Phandame’s rear. Sliced the waves like how the Fiend clawed away at the deck’s tarp sheet.
This the Lord’s work, eh? His way to purge the soul of sloth, eh? To punish those who played hooky on their Air Force chums? Fine, Man Upstairs. Let them old life blues fill the home stretch. Let the tension mount till it reached the clouds.
The trawler’s engine jammed and sputtered as the boat bumped and stalled against the jet-sporting berg. A wing broke off of the plane and plunged onto the Fiend’s right arm, breaking it. The Fiend tried to haul itself over the stern and free itself from the cables of the outriggers that dropped from the mast and tore open the Fiend’s chest.
The Phandame swooped over the starboard, against which the scraps of Nadira Past bumped. Through a porthole window on the cabin’s exterior, she spied Nadira and the birds. They rushed inside the storage room, which the window linked to. Nadira clutched the knob and slammed the door shut. Jars crashed. Sauerkraut juice splashed to the door lock’s clunk.
“Cap on deck!” said the Phandame as she whooshed through the window. The birds saluted her. Nadira hinged her head left and right before she copied the birds’ gesture. Her teeth chattered.
“Not me.” The Phandame jutted her chin at Nadira. “Her.”
The birds wheeled to face Nadira. She pointed at herself and mouthed, “Me?”
The Phandame nodded.
Nadira stood on a trunk the window which she poked her head out of. The trawler pitched toward the deck side. Nadira swung her head to her right. After the Fiend capped off a round of growls, Nadira’s hands slid down the wall she pressed them on. She pulled her head back in. Her breath shuddered as she turned her head on one side and away from the window. She pinched her nose bridge with one hand and waved at the Phandame with the other. Nadira wept.
“Count to five,” the Phandame said. She raised her clenched fist to Nadira’s face. “Inhale.”
Nadira breathed in through her nose as she let go of it. Eyes closed, she held her breath.
The Phandame unclenched her fist. She spread out her fingers. “Exhale.”
With a whistle, Nadira breathed out through her mouth. She wiped with her thumb the blood that trickled out of her lip cut and onto her chin. She repeated the therapy.
“Attalass,” the Phandame said. “I’m sorry ’bout earlier.” She placed her palm on Nadira’s crown and leaned toward her ear. “You’ve the right to leave in good spirits. And in one piece.”
Nadira tittered with a smirk. She turned to the Phandame and mouthed, “One last hurrah?”
The Phandame poked Nadira’s forehead. “One more hurrah.”
Nadira slammed her fist on her other palm. She rolled up her sleeves and tapped her foot while she scanned the room. In a crouch, she beckoned to the Phandame.
“All ears,” the Phandame said. She copied Nadira’s pose.
Nadira pulled on her sweater’s collar. She made a circle in the air with her fingers and threw her hand at the Phandame. Through the Phandame. Nadira’s arm swooshed through the ghost from head to where her thighs should have been. Would it have killed the flaking to take its time? Swirls of mist wrapped around Nadira’s arm. They dissolved as she slipped her hand in her back pocket. She pulled out the voice box battery.
“I get it,” the Phandame said. She snapped her fingers. “You want to make…”
“A new voice box!”
—before facepalming. Her hand slid down from her forehead to her chin. “Bomb,” Nadira mouthed. She traced her finger under the words “Keep Far from Fire” on the battery.
“Or a bomb.” The Phandame nodded. “Bombs work too.” She turned to the crows in front of the storage room door. “Crows, clipboard.”
The crows cawed and winged out of the room via the door’s transom window. Grunts punctuated every stomp the Fiend made on the deck as it kept trying to untangle itself. The crows winged back into the room. One gripped the clipboard in their claws. The other rifled through the pages till the Phandame made it stop with a pumped fist.
She traced her finger down a list, titled “Traps I’ve Yet to Use,” that filled Page 1 of 27:
Chumlad shook his head with a chirp.
“Wish there were more ways too. But this the only one that won’t take me to Limbo.”
With a tweet, Chumlad soared toward the trunk. Flipped the hasp up and swung the lid open with the blue jays’ help. He dove in and came out with a measuring tape. The crows held the tape’s case down as Chumlad brought the hook end to Nadira’s crown.
The Phandame spied the number on the tail end of the tape. “Six feet. Got to make sure the bait matches your current frame.” She thrust her hand at the blue jays. “Have at it, chums.”
Nadira and the blue jays nodded. They paced about the room. Plucked the bomb ingredients off the shelves and out of the trunk. Grabbed a Nadira Past body from the waves edging the window and pulled it inside. The Phandame floated out of the room to see how the Fiend was doing.
Tangled up as always. “Firm and Mint” became a half-truth at that point. Good news: the “Firm” part still applied to the trawler. Bad news: the “Firm” part still applied to the Fiend.
Four stern slams against the berg later, the Phandame hovered back to the storage room. Time to put the final touch on the great news.
“To cap it all off,” the Phandame said. She held out her hands to the dummy’s skull.
The crows plopped the battery into the dummy’s eye socket, and the blue jays poured peanut oil from the jerrycan on the dummy’s clothes. Nadira placed a lit lantern inside the dummy’s ribcage. She wound up the stopwatch hanging from the breast pocket on the dummy’s sweater. The ticking slowed as the handle moved clockwise. Two minutes to call it a decade.
“Your loss of life hasn’t gone in vain,” the Phandame said. She patted the dummy’s beret.
Nadira grabbed the dummy by the scarf and dragged it out of the storage room. Stomped her way through the coffee tables, rubber ducks, and chess pieces strewn on the floorboards.
As she stepped out into the downpour, Nadira bared her teeth and glared at the Fiend. The latter writhed under the outrigger cables, which tightened around the Fiend’s arms. As if fed up with the Fiend’s shrieks, an outrigger fell off the mast and slammed onto the Fiend’s face. Its eyes grew dim as it hung its head over the hole in its chest.
With the dummy in hand, Nadira strode over the fallen outriggers and their cables as she neared the beast. To the cue of a moan from the Fiend, Nadira chucked the dummy into the chest hole. The Fiend’s inner tendrils clutched the dummy’s limbs. Took the bait, as planned.
“Swollid.” The Phandame pointed at the starboard’s life raft before she and Nadira jogged to it. The latter lifted the float off its wall hooks. Wrapped its rope around a cleat on the starboard gunwale. Lobbed the raft onto the waves, with ice chunks drifting by.
As Nadira set foot on the float, a tendril snaked toward and wrapped around her leg.
“Nadira!” the Phandame said as the Fiend’s tendril dragged Nadira back onto the deck.
“Chumlad!” The Phandame swung her head left and right. 10 heartbeats later, the crows winged over the starboard gunwale. They hovered and cawed in front of the Phandame.
“Crikey in a manger,” said the Phandame. “He went to fetch the taser gun?”
The crows glanced at each other and nodded at the Phandame.
The Phandame thrust her hand at the crows. “Send Chumlad my way once you see him.”
She glided toward Nadira, who held on to the tarp as the Fiend tugged on her leg.
The beast hopped in place. Rocked the trawler. Tightened its grip on Nadira. The stern rammed into the berg once more, and the jet wreck tipped further down as the outriggers rattled.
With a mix of gurgling and blubbering, the Fiend spewed the dummy out of its chest. Tendrils wriggled and gripped one another before they began to pull chest halves back in one spot.
The trawler pitched back and forth. Right out of the Sundry Helpings rulebook. This time, back out-tilted forth. Tables, a chessboard, and rubber ducks clattered and squeaked out of the cabin doorway. Rolled across the deck with the mop bucket cart to call dibs on the Fiend’s head.
The tendrils let go of Nadira’s leg. The Fiend’s hand screened its face from the hail of tableware and toys whaling on its arms and legs.
“BJs!” The Phandame beckoned to the blue jays in the cabin doorway. She pointed to the dummy as the trawler’s rocking tossed it about the deck. “Pass it on to Nadira.”
The blue jays swooped toward the dummy. With their claws, they clasped it by the scarf. Nadira played whack-a-girl with the Fiend’s fist that slammed on the deck. She rolled back and forth on the floor as she slid down the sloping deck and toward the Fiend’s chest hole.
The blue jays closed in on Nadira. Then, a tweet behind the Phandame. She glanced over her shoulder. A mass of feathers flew over the portside gunwale. Bobbed up and down. It schlepped a taser gun under it with a red ribbon wrapped around the gun’s handle.
“Chumlad!” said the Phandame. She spread her arms at him. “What were y—”
The crows soared over the gunwale and ground to a midair halt in front of the Phandame. Their caws merged with one another. Poked their proverbial heads out of the flood of waves that crashed and ducks that squeaked. Before the blue jays’ tweets drowned the crows out.
The Phandame spun to the blue jays. Chumlad waved the gun at his feathers-in-arms, who shook their heads. Both sides traded barbs over the use of electricity on a drenched trawler. The blue jays swept the issue under the rug by tossing the dummy under the tarp to shield it from the Fiend’s fist banging on the deck. The Phandame swooped between Chumlad and the blue jays.
“Break it up, you blue-feathered lot!” the Phandame said, flashing her palms at both sides. “There be direr matters afoot.” She pointed at Nadira, who circled the deck like a rolling pin. Only difference was that Nadira would be the flattened one if the Fiend kept up with its pounding.
With a hung head, Chumlad fluttered away from the blue jays and into the cabin. The Phandame spun to the tarp. The dummy slid out of it and toward Nadira. She held on to the mast and went from whack-a-girl to peekaboo. Leaned left and right to dodge the Fiend’s tendrils.
A bump against the berg. Water gushes leaped onto the deck and threw Nadira off the mast.
“Nadira!” said the Phandame. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Grab your right.”
Forth got the upper hand on back. Nadira spiraled on the deck and clutched with both hands a fistful of chess pieces and rubber ducks. The dummy slid behind her.
“Other right. Use your leg.” The Phandame lifted a finger. “Pick up.”
With a leg swipe, Nadira slid the dummy to her arms’ embrace. Forth took a break and back claimed the wheels. Nadira slid sternward and pressed her face against the dummy’s rags.
“Hop up.” Two fingers.
Nadira hopped over the Fiend’s swinging fist. It tore the tarp off its pegs. Cast it and the crates it covered into the waves. Nadira hared across the deck and toward the chest hole.
“Shove it in the b— uh, guts!” Three fingers. Word-fumbling ought not to muck things up.
Nadira neared the slit that ran from the Fiend’s head to its loins. With an arched back, Nadira held the dummy out to the chest hole. Her boots pressed against the stern’s gunwale.
The Fiend cocked its head down. A roar. Its eyes changed from sauerkraut white to mead amber. It raised its left arm and curled its tendrils into a fist before swinging it down.
Nadira shoved the dummy into the chest hole as the fist pierced the deck floor. Vinyl bits flitted about and struck the Fiend’s head. They juddered onto it.
Chest butterflies rushed out of the Phandame, who sighed. A gasp sucked them back in as the Phandame eyed Nadira, who squirmed between the Fiend’s arm—stuck in the deck—and chest.
“She’s stuck,” said the Phandame. “BJs!” She glimpsed at the blue jays and jerked her thumb at the cabin. “Get the crowbar. Storage room, top shelf to the transom’s right.”
As the birds dashed inside the cabin, the Phandame hovered to Nadira and the Fiend.
Nadira pulled her head back and returned the Fiend’s glare. The latter jerked its body left and right to tug its fist out of the deck floor. For once, Nadira and the Fiend shared a goal: to get out of their bind. Before the bomb forced them out of it with crimson and tar thrown into the mix.
The Phandame gazed at the stopwatch on the dummy. 30 seconds until Nadira’s conversion into the past tense. Till the trawler went belly up. Till liftoff into Limbo. Might as well--
The Phandame slammed her fist on her temple and the door on her imagination before it could flee the pale of hopefulness. A lot could unfold in 30 seconds. One could enter a butcher shop. Pluck a $300 slab of Wagyu beef. Sprint out of the shop. Shout, “Look!” at cops while pointing at the sky. All before the thief slipped into a manhole, roasted the slab, and fed the poor. That last trilogy of parts took over 30 seconds.
But like an elevator pitch, things went one of two ways: bang or bust. Between the bomb and the jet that may dive onto the Fiend and Nadira, things could go both ways if one got too slack.
Octans and Sextans flashed their stars at the Phandame once more. Guess the folks upstairs tuned in to her channel. See where the cliffhanger would lead. Well, there’d be no second time if the first one ended with the gals at the crag’s foot instead of on its top. This time, the Phandame and Nadira had to steer clear from the cr— berg’s top. Were the tension any sharper, it’d have carved the plane in half by now. Have it plunged onto the Great Escapade cast. Call it a slice for those watching in the clouds. Where would the ball land on the roulette wheel? Stay tuned, chums.
“Nadira, look at me, look at me!” said the Phandame. “Right here, lass.”
Nadira’s squirming stopped as she met the Phandame’s gaze. The wide eyes, bared teeth, wrinkled nose… All made way for shuddered breaths and furrowed brows.
The Phandame said, “Don’t you fret. Birds will pry you out with a crowbar.” She turned to the blue jays as they winged to her. “Ain’t that the truth?”
The birds shook their heads and chirped.
“Gone? No, must have fallen off. Have you checked the floor? The trunks? Any—”
Nadira held a finger to the Phandame’s banana peel mouth. “It’s okay. Go without me,” Nadira mouthed. Her eyes watered, and her curled-up lips quivered.
The red of doubt? 15 seconds.
The Phandame shook her head. “Marsha, Nay, Oswald.” She cupped her hands around Nadira’s cheeks. “You never let them down out of all the chums you’ve had. Why not yourself?”
The black of panic? 10 seconds.
Nadira froze at the names the Phandame chucked at her. She mouthed, “How did you…”
Or the green of acceptance? Five seconds.
A chirp behind the Phandame. She peered over her shoulder.
A crowbar zipped through her head and jammed into the chest slit as it was about to close. Chumlad fluttered over the Phandame’s shoulder while he hauled the taser gun with his ribbon. He swung it back and forth before he snapped the thread of fabric in half with his beak. The weapon dove into the slit and tendrils latched on to Chumlad as he twirled to the Phandame and Nadira.
The Phandame reached out to Chumlad. Nadira broke free and lurched away from the Fiend’s chest. As Chumlad sank inside the Fiend, he chirped and jutted his head at the Phandame. She held her hand out to Chumlad so she could--
A spark blinded the Phandame as the Fiend’s roar made way for that of the bomb when it detonated. The jet wreck creaked and slid off the berg’s tip, crashing onto the Fiend as electric arcs and fire bursts shot out of its chest. Nadira tumbled over the starboard gunwale. Dodging more vinyl shards and chess pieces, the blue jays zipped to the bow.
The Fiend sank its tendrils into the vinyl flooring. They tore through the deck as the wreck dragged the rest of the Fiend into the water. The beast’s bellow became a whimper. As the trawler pitched toward the stern, the Fiend’s elbows snapped and cracked on the stern’s gunwale. The tendrils let go of the deck and followed the Fiend under the waves.
Back got the upper hand on forth, and the trawler capsized on its stern. The outriggers fell off their mast. Clattering and tumbling into the bubbles ringing the bent tendrils, which poked out of the water and refused to let go of their lust for a 3652nd meal.
The Phandame hovered above the bow as the rest of the trawler slid below the surface of outriggers, ice blocks, and rubber ducks. She glanced at the bubble clump as the Fiend’s whimpers grew faint. Beneath the surface lay two light orbs that flashed the same hues as the doorway fireworks in the hardware store. As the bow’s tip sank, the Fiend’s eyes went from solid dots to bits of underwater glint. Then, nothing.
10 years of planning. Of practice. Of neck therapy to ease the pain of hung heads in the face of failed runs. All came to pass as the curtains fell on the Fiend and drew open in the sky. The downpour became a drizzle once more. The clouds broke up to show the morning’s teal and orange.
“Nadira!” The Phandame swerved her head left and right. The waves thrashed onto a skerry’s mudbank. Swept the trawler’s vinyl shards and cables away from the berg, now a crooked spire of white pointing at sunlight that streamed through the horizon’s clouds.
As the flaking got to her ribs, the Phandame spotted Nadira on the life raft. Floating between the spire and the mudbank. Bobbing up and down the waves. Her arms caked in blood.
Gasping, the Phandame dashed to the raft as the waves brought it ashore on the mudbank. She clasped her hands. Breathed in and out. Count to five. Inhale. Count to five. Exhale.
She lowered herself onto Nadira and leaned over her head. “I’m here, love, I’m here.” Specks of glitter from the Phandame’s flaking fell onto Nadira’s lap as the birds flew at her side.
The Phandame’s breaths shuddered as the blue jays and crows poked Nadira’s cheeks with their beaks. Save for the breeze that brushed the bangs off her brows, Nadira lay still on the raft.
“Please, please, please.” The Phandame sobbed over Nadira.
Paper rustled to the Phandame’s left. She eyed a paper sheet that frisked in the nippy air. It followed a red string that snaked its way down before resting on Nadira’s neck, with the paper landing on her lap. The crows flipped the sheet over to show the words. The blue jays dragged the ribbon off of Nadira and onto the mudbank. They lined up behind what remained of Chumlad.
The Phandame gazed at the sheet the crows held down with their claws. They cawed at her. She hung her head and brought her mouth next to Nadira’s ear before she whispered:
Many woes abounding. As you’re striving to seek. Deliverance and bonding deep within. Old life blues are abounding. But a new life is beckoning. All them faces and all them places. Blend in one go, but you never yield. Carry on, my chummie, carry on. For the world lusts for enlightenment and joy. And when you carve out your privy path. You shall lead others and yourself.
The clapping of hands punctuated the Phandame’s ode. She pulled away from Nadira’s ear. Eyed a half-smile and squinted eyes on Nadira’s face.
“Beautiful,” Nadira mouthed. Four claps later, she pointed at something beyond her lap.
The Phandame spun about. Aside from the ice spire, nothing of interest in the distance. She cocked her head down and stared at sparks of glitter. They worked their way down her frame. Her waist, legs, and feet cropped up on her form once more. The folks upstairs had spoken.
After she sighed, the Phandame turned to Nadira and said, “That ode of mine? Last words. ’fore the Fiend claimed me. Thought they’d save me. Like at the orphanage and on the streets. Alas…” The Phandame pulled the shawl off her head. “I didn’t want to jinx it back at the pier.”
Nadira curled one corner of her lip up. She rubbed the Phandame’s crown braid with her bloodied hand. Leaning over the raft’s edge, Nadira wrote on the mud with her finger on her other hand. Carved out words that read, “DON’T YOU FRET.”
The Phandame tittered at the words on the mud. “Conqueror of patterns. Slayer of naysayers. Maverick of mavericks.” She stroked Nadira’s cheek. “You’re all three.”
Nadira brought her palm to the cheek the Phandame’s hand lay on. “Thanks,” she mouthed.
A slit of sunlight stretched across the mud toward Nadira. The Phandame faced the horizon, whose dark cirrus clouds paved the way for more of the morning’s teal and orange. The crack in the slab of clouds, from which the sunlight came, rose from the sea to the sun.
As the seam reached the primordial star, the clouds parted sideways. Widened the sunlight slit into a cone that poured itself onto the ocean and tore it apart. A trail of sandstone blocks and kelp patches shoved the waves aside as it spread open. At the end of it lay an archway of light.
Nadira sat up and goggled at the divines’ idea of a red carpet. She winced under the pain from her wounds as she pulled her feet in. She closed her eyes and lied down on her back.
“The raft,” the Phandame said. She turned to the birds. “Let’s get her down there on it.” She stared at the light archway and glanced back at Nadira. “Time to go home.”
With the archway’s light pulsing at the trail’s end, the birds flew backward and tugged on the raft with their beaks. They dragged Nadira into the incline that settled for a 10-degree gradient.
As the Phandame and Nadira slid down the slope, the kelp on the trail wriggled to life. Their leaves squished while they untangled themselves from one another. They wrapped around the raft. Pulled it and Nadira from one kelp patch to another further down the incline.
The Phandame patted Nadira’s belly with a chuckle. “Sorry for roughing you up.”
With a grin, Nadira gave the Phandame two thumbs-up. She mouthed, “Wunderbar.”
As she let her hands drop to her sides, Nadira closed her eyes and smiled as the raft slid inside the archway. Along with the birds, she vanished through the wall of light within the arches the Phandame stood under. With Nadira gone, the odors of sauerkraut and cookie dough abated.
The Phandame turned to face the trail. The sunlight cone that split the sea pulled back from the mudbank and toward the archway. Letting the waves it shoved aside fall back onto the seabed.
Like the houses and streets, it was the sea’s turn to loom over the Phandame.
As the archway narrowed on both sides, cracks cropped up on the Phandame’s mask. Bits of the faceplate chipped off and sank into the water at the Phandame’s feet. She caressed her face as the cracks snaked toward the mask’s upper half.
A cloud floated around and stilled in front of her. Atop the cloud rested a handle mirror. Same one from the cloister. Goosebumps formed on the Phandame’s arms as the mist on them turned into olive-skinned flesh that she pinched.
She clasped the mirror’s handle and raised the glass to her face. Stared with her mouth and eyes wide open. Full lips, aquiline nose, hazel eyes, plump cheeks… Everything came back to her.
She closed her eyes and smiled as the ocean vanished behind the archway’s wall of light.
“And I delivered,” Nadira said.