Chapter 01 Draft

The ghost of my mother was making it impossible to deal with all of the other ghosts in my life, and after a week my stepfather had refused to do the logical thing and let her go.

"Gwen? Honeycomb?"

His voice stumbled through the door of my bedroom, and I sighed and slid the window closed on the April swelter. The conditioned air of our house cooled the sweat on my skin, and I shivered in relief. As I shrugged my feet out of muddy Converse high-tops, I let them thump to the floor as an answer.

"It's just that..." he started, stopped.

I ducked a low-hanging string as I crossed to the bed and dropped my satchel onto it. The beat-up canvas bag clanked in response, and I winced. Probably hadn't needed the canteen for this short of a trip, and it made a lot of noise against the trowel.

"You should carry a purse, my dear," said my mother's memory. "They come in all sizes. Space for makeup and, what is that, some sort of nail polish remover?"

"Phenolphthalein solution," I had muttered back. "You know I don't wear makeup."

She'd scoffed. "My dear Gwen, I only want what’s best for you. We live in America now, where a little makeup will not kill you, but too little might. You could at least do your nails for your first day of work."


My stepfather continued, "... I miss her. I know you miss her, too."

... she hadn't said that last sentence. My memory was playing tricks. It never played tricks. Well... how long had it been since I'd slept? Thirty-seven hours and forty-three minutes? I blinked, feeling my eyelids scrape over bloodshot eyes. No. Forty-seven minutes.

A subtraction error? I was starting to lose it.

According to a 1998 study by Stanley Coren, sleep deprivation mimics psychosis: distorted perceptions can lead to inappropriate emotional and behavioral responses.

My more prominent ghost's voice was proper and crisp, with a slight tinge of impatience.

“I’m not emotional,” I growled.

There was the sensation of a raised eyebrow from somewhere indistinct over my shoulder. From the other side of the door, my stepfather sighed, and I glared at the indistinct figure flickering at the edges of my consciousness.

“I know, I know. You say that nothing ever bothers you. But Gwen, you haven’t come out of your room since the day before yesterday. I’ve been home! Good grief, kiddo, you’ve got to pee sometime!”

I rolled my eyes at my ghost, who nodded back.

He defuses tension through humor. There was a pause. He is worried about you.

“Opening the door isn’t going to make things any better,” I gestured about the wreck of my room. To the untrained eye it might appear… cluttered.

“I know, I know,” my stepfather answered. “I keep expecting her to stroll in the front door, wearing some sort of expensive new outfit, to laugh it off and say, ‘Oh, Leo, you believed that note?’ But Gwen, it’s been over a week. She’s never been gone this long before. And she’s definitely never left a note. I think…” he choked it off for a moment.

I was only half paying attention. If I’m being honest, a great deal less than half, but it didn’t take that much of my attention to be able to loudly ignore my stepfather’s pity party.

He is trying to comfort you, my ghost scolded.

I pulled a dirt-covered box out of my satchel. Take that, mother. Can you imagine putting something so filthy in anything made by Louis Vuitton?

“You’d be amazed at the sort of filth that finds its way into a woman’s purse,” I remembered her. Her eyebrows had wiggled, and my stomach had followed suit.

Get out of my head, mother. I followed the clues you left. I found the box you buried with dad’s old dog. The grass had grown back over the spot. You’ve been planning this for a long time, mom.

You’ve been abandoning me for, what, weeks? Months? Have you been abandoning me for years, mother?

“I don’t think she’s coming back, Gwen.” The words spilled out of him in a rush, and I could hear him deflate. His shirt hissed in defeat as he slid down the wall next to my door.

A theory worth putting to the test, said my ghost, face blank.

I eased myself down onto the bed, box in my lap. It was wooden, sturdy, simple. My breath caught. I brushed some of the soil off, but I could feel my ghost’s lips purse in disapproval.

You know what this is.

I knew. She’d had this box with her when we left Yemen. Life had been a whirlwind six years ago when Leo had taken us out of the place I was born, where my birth father had died. We’d had so little, but she’d always had the box. When we moved from Sana’a to the hinterlands, traveling with qat merchants by night when it was easier to hear the buzz of the spy planes, she’d had it. When I had met my brother, the box had been nearby. When things got bad and America’s war came too close, we took the box back to Sana’a only to find a changed city, one that now reeked of shit and cholera, with flies tripping over the lips of babies whose hearts had fluttered their last. That box had been with us since there had been an “us”. I’d known that box my whole life.

I had never once seen it opened. There was a small metal clasp on the front. My fingers hesitated over it.

I had tried before to open the box. I was a… difficult child. I had opinions. Few fears. Little respect for authority. In a life with so few things, the box had been an object of curiosity since I was a child. There must have been a hundred nights I had decided, this time I’ll find it!

I never had. She’d hidden it so even her difficult child couldn’t find it. The one time I had ever even seen it, the soot still streaked both our faces as we fled as-Sa’id, and my ears still rung with bomb blasts. She had near-dragged me through the hills, the road distant even by daylight. Tears had streaked my cheeks as I fought to put that place behind us, but my ten-year-old body betrayed my will, and I’d collapsed in the dust, tears and all. Wordlessly, she’d picked me up and cradled me close, carrying me over peak and through valleys as I nodded in and out of consciousness. We’d had no water since that morning when we left.

I woke up to darkness, my mother clutched around me, breath ragged but steady. The box was there, too, sticking up out of the shawl into which she’d wrapped our few worldly possessions and even fewer food stuffs. The metal clasp sparkled in the moonlight.

She was definitely asleep. Carefully, I reached out, inch by inch, determined finally to reveal this secret. After all we’d lost, this was perhaps all I had left.

<<No, my dear,>> she’d said, her dark eyes on mine. <<Not yet. Please. This is not the time. You don’t need it yet.>>

It was the only time she had ever asked me for anything. Looking into her bloodshot eyes, her body pushed beyond the point of exhaustion, I was still a child. I couldn’t give it to her.

<<Why not, mother?>> I’d whispered back in Arabic. <<We’re in the middle of a war with hundreds of miles between us and the city. We have almost no food and no water. You say I don’t need it, but we need everything. Tell me, mother, what do we have that will make the rest possible?>>

<<We have each other, my dear child. Save the box for darker times.>>

My fingers brushed dirt off the clasp. We had made it to Sana’a, and out of Yemen, into a house that was a mansion even by American standards. My stepfather became a Senator, and we moved to a different mansion. Here was the box in front of me. There were no spy planes with their bombs, no soldiers with their guns or their leers. There weren’t even any Beckys with their straw hair and twig waists and pointed smiles.

There was only the box in my lap.

The box, and the thing that was not there. Darker times, indeed.

I unclasped the lid.

The odor was of cigarettes and cloves. I could smell sweat and tears, and some sentimental part of me heard a shrill cry, an infant’s struggle for air and food and warm and soft and need and mother. The paper was yellowed with age, and the pock marks in the paper were the marks of a young woman who had been pushed so far beyond what any woman was capable of, into the realm that all woman could be capable of. She had been crying, and I could detect the barest whiff of iodine and antiseptic.

She wrote this while in a hospital. You had just left her breast, to be attended by nurses. Her fingers trembled with emotion and exertion.

“My dear daughter,” the letter read in English, “this day is inevitable, but I will fight it until you leave me no choice. Know that even still I am fighting. You cannot imagine why, but this is for the best. Know this: you cannot find me. Not even you. But I am still your mother. You still need someone to look after you. Tomorrow. I promise. Tomorrow you will find a guardian. And on the day that you become the guardian, I will return to you. I swear it.”

The letter was signed, “Reem ar-Rahmani (your mother)”.

The postscript read, “You cannot imagine how much I love you.”

Then, “I am so sorry.”

I sat, not breathing. Even my stepfather was silent.

Slowly, I re-creased the letter and slid it back into the box. I put the box back into my satchel, thought better of it, then placed it quietly onto a shelf.

She had been right. I couldn’t imagine why.

She had also been wrong. I didn’t need a guardian. She couldn’t have imagined why. I didn’t need anyone to take care of me.

“Gwen?” my stepfather choked. “Honeycomb, I love you. You’re not alone. It’s the two of us now. I’m not going anywhere. I swear it.”

I swallowed, not that there had been a lump.  I blinked, not that there had been tears.

I pulled off my shirt, unclasped my bra. I unbuttoned, slid my jeans down with a shimmy, hooking my underwear along with them. I wrinkled my nose at them. There was a wadded up towel next to my bed that smelled only faintly of mildew.

CLICK, went the door.

Still shrugging my way into the towel, I pushed out into the hall next to my stepfather. He’d hit fifty that year, but could have passed for his late thirties… at least, until last week. Yellow hair that was all his, strong jawline, dark eyes… I remembered when I’d first spotted them back in Sana’a after the last time I’d come close to that box. I’d been holding back the blush of womanhood for some time, but even I could see what my mother had appreciated in his broad shoulders, the way he squared them against the universe. He was doing it even now, from the floor, trying to be strong for me when you had abandoned us.

You, mother, goddamn you.

Stepfather or no, Leo was enough of a man in the presence of an articulated young female to avert his eyes as I secured the towel in place, barely decent even in my own home.

“I need a shower,” I told him as I passed him by.

It wasn't a lie.

But Gwen, it is also not the truth.


I wrote this with inspiration from the local high school’s annual musical, which had its own wonderful magic. The next day, I saw John Oliver’s reminder that we are still keeping kids in cages, and I knew what I had to do.

Trigger Warning: violence towards children. It’s not all pretty in here. But it turns out all right in the end.

This is my way of dealing with this shit. It may be make-believe, but I believe in the power of stories to save us. Sometimes, it’s just stories saving me.

Nothing here is real, and I’m certainly not advocating teddy bear violence against real people. The reactions of some of the children in this story are true to life, and are heartbreaking. These kids need someone who cares for them to sail in on the east wind…

The wind was hot, and the sky was endless. In the daylight, it was the only place you could look without the glare from the sand blinding you. In the night, there were a billion stars on which you could wish yourself away.

The fences stopped you, though. Ten feet high, metal mesh topped with razor wire. They’d quit trying after the third kid had to be cut down from the top, the wire still entwined in his flesh. He wasn’t even screaming, just... breathing. Ragged, like an animal that would have chewed off its own leg if it had the strength.

There should have been blood, but the sand drank it up. There was nothing more than a dark spot on the ground. By noon, not even that.

Miguel had only three dreams anymore. In the first, he was walking, walking, walking, unable to stop. He was thirsty. His mother was there. She was there, but he could not see her face, because she walked ahead and never turned around. She whispered to him, but her voice was lost on the wind, that hot wind that drove sand and grit into their eyes as they walked. He knew they had to keep going, to get to America. But he also knew how the dream was going to end. Every time. Walking, ever walking, and then men shouting, and his mother turning to reach for him, but as her arm stretched out, it turned to sand, her body turned to sand, her face, to sand. And she was gone. 
In the second, they were back home, and he could smell his abuela’s cooking, the pupusas and tamales making his mouth water (because in dreams, it was not full of dust and sand). His sister Juana was doing her numbers, tongue poking slightly out between her lips as she puzzled at the figures on the page. Miguel had just been shooed out of the kitchen and wanted to play, but Juana scowled at him and told him to go away. There was a crunch of wheels outside, and his heart leapt at the sound of his papa returning. A huge grin on his face, he raced through the kitchen to the front door, where his mama stood in its open silhouette, facing the yard with her arms wide in greeting. Then there were more car sounds, more tires, and the loud popping over and over. His mama was bent double, screaming. A hand fell into view in the doorway, fingers twitching life away, and that was the last time he saw his papa alive at all.

That second dream was a bad one, and he would wake in his cage in the hot night with the north wind trying to blow him out of America. He would be covered in sweat, sometimes shouting, sometimes whimpering, sometimes crying softer than the breeze. If Juana was awake, she would wave weakly to him from a nearby cage. They couldn’t stay together because of rules, something about having boys and girls together that he didn’t understand. So he was in with the bigger boys instead of with his big sister, and they did not hug him or stroke his hair or kiss his head. They would curse him for still crying like a baby, like a woman, and he had learned after the first beating that he should not remind them that they still cried in the dark, just like him.

Sometimes, though, on nights when the north wind was still, Miguel had his third dream. In the dream, he would awaken with a start, and the cage would be empty. The sun was barely in the sky, before the blazing heat of day. The cage doors would be open, and he would stumble out of them. He would hear... laughter. There was no sign of the guards, no sign of anyone. The fence still stood between him and desolate emptiness. But the gate was open, as it never was in the real world. And through the gate... through it was green. If you looked to either side, past the posts of the gate, there was desert. But if you looked through the portal, there was a grassy park, with a gentle rolling hill, and a statue of two men: one with a beard holding a three-pointed spear, and another younger man looking up at him and smiling. He could see children playing by the statue and further into the park. Juana was there, and she waved! Then there would come the voice: warm, kind, gentle.

“Come along, Miguel. It’s time to go. Spit-spot!”

He would turn, and all he could see next to him was a huge umbrella. It smelled of fields and grass and lavender. With a whoosh, it closed, and she was there...

He would wake up then, for real, with the scent of lavender still filling his nostrils. It was always dark after the third dream, with no one else awake, just him, and the whisper of a word on the wind, a strange word he did not understand.

The third dream was the cruelest of them all. On those nights, Miguel did not fall back asleep. He sat up the rest of the night, listening desperately for the wind to change.

One such morning as he sat dozing during the English lessons that they all had to attend, Juana kicked him under the table. He looked up sharply, ready to kick back, but found that all eyes in the class were on him.

“Mi-GUEL,” repeated the teacher, “are you able to spell it, or not?”

“S...” he began, and she nodded at him to continue. “U-P-E... R.” The teacher beamed at him, but he continued with several more letters as she waved him down.

“No, Miguel. In English we don’t change the endings of words. You were correct, though. ‘Super’. S-U-P-E-R. Very good. Now, Javier, what about ‘worst’?”

Juana squinted at him. “You weren’t changing the word,” she whispered in Spanish. “You were spelling something. What was it?”

Yo no se,” he yawned. “I don’t know. Just something I heard somewhere...”

At lunchtime, the guards called for Alejandro to come with them. Everyone straightened.

“Do you think his mama and papa have come to get him?” Juana said.

Miguel shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably not. Our mamas and papas don’t love us anymore, that’s what señora West says.”

“Our mama loves us,” hissed Juana, pushing up and away from the table. She leaned over Miguel. “You take that back!”

“But we’re still here!” he wailed. “If mama still loved us, why wouldn’t she come and get us? That’s what they tell us, and they’re right. She doesn’t love us or she would come for us!”

Tears welled up in Juana’s eyes, and she slammed her hands down on the table, causing trays to jump and attracting the attention of two of the guards. “That’s a lie! You take it back!

“I can’t even remember her face!” Miguel shouted back at her. “She doesn’t love us! I hate her. I hate mama!”

Juana threw herself at Miguel, fingers like claws coming for his eyes, his throat, whatever she could grab. Mid-leap, a guard tackled her down to the table, crushing it and her beneath him as children scrambled back. The other snatched up Miguel in a bear hug, pulling him aloft as both of them screamed in unison, “No fighting! Do not resist!”

Miguel saw his sister crumpled amidst the wreckage of the table as the first guard stood up, loosing a baton from his belt. She stirred weakly, stretching out a hand for Miguel.

“She… loves…”

The baton came down on her arm with a crack that made Miguel’s throat close up. “No,” he coughed. “No, no, no… yo quiero a mi hermana! I want my sister! I want my sister!

He struggled and flailed as the guard shouted at him, but he was seven and small, and the man was so big. The other guard still had his baton raised, ready for Juana to move again, and suddenly Miguel had his captor’s arm in his mouth and he tasted blood. There was cursing, shouting, and he was falling, running, scrabbling on all fours to Juana, barely able to see through salty tears.

“Juana!” he cried. “No, no, Juana, I’m sorry! Please, I’m sorry! Please! Please don’t go!”

Then pain blossomed at the base of his skull, and then nothing.

He awoke with his head feeling like it was split open from behind, taped together by a bloody steak. A light was piercing his eyes, first one, then the other, and… maybe a third? How many eyes did he have? Where was he? It smelled like abuela’s medicines.

“… mildly concussed,” a woman said. “He’s damn lucky not to be dead. What were those apes doing, using batons on a kid? Why do they even have them?”

“Some of those kids are pretty big,” came a man’s voice. “They have to defend themselves. There are some-”

“So help me, if you say bad hombres, I will personally see to it that for the next week you are shitting out sandwiches you ate in the first grade, which is where this little boy should be. I’ve got no room for that in my- ah, dammit, he’s awake!”

There was a pinprick in Miguel’s arm, something cold and spiky in his vein, and then there was a whisper on the wind, and then nothing.

When he woke again, it was night, and he was alone. He was in a hospital bed, with crisp white sheets starched like sandpaper. His head ached, and as he tapped the back of it he felt a thick bandage, but less pain than he might have thought. He turned his head experimentally from side to side, and this was no worse than the time he’d fallen out of the tree in abuela’s yard and hit his head on the ground. No fun, but he was okay.

He swung down out of the bed. It was a spartan room: a metal makeshift bed, some medical equipment, a few of those jars with tongue depressors and cotton balls. He pulled a few of these out for amusement, but when he’d gotten to the bottom of the jar he grew bored.

There was a small bottle on the metal table that was now covered in cotton balls. Miguel cocked his head. Had it been there a moment ago? It was old and ornate, with a glass stopper in the top in the shape of a fleur-de-lis. He was sure he would have noticed it.

He looked around. It was dark in the room, and very quiet. He was alone.

Now there was a spoon next to the bottle.

Miguel jumped back. He looked around again. He looked under the table. When he came back up, his name was on the bottle, written in neat handwriting on a piece of ribbon tied to the neck! 
He swallowed nervously and gingerly rubbed the back of his head. Yep, still hurt. Had he really been hit that hard? This was the strangest game he had ever played, and he was fairly certain that he was playing it by himself.

He picked up the bottle. Nothing on the back. The stopper was beautiful, but otherwise just a stopper.

There was a word etched on the bottom. It went around the circumference of the bottom of the bottle, and it was so long, it took Miguel a few tries to work out where it began and ended.


He stopped. He knew this word. This was the word from his dreams.

Was he dreaming now? He pinched himself - ow! He tapped the back of his head. Ow more!

He didn't think he was dreaming.

He pulled out the stopper, poured a dark red liquid onto the spoon, and carefully maneuvered it into his mouth.

Strawberries. It was strawberries. Not strawberry flavor, though he liked that very much also. It was strawberries. The kind that he at with his mother, both of them smiling and laughing last summer while the sun was high and his sister was at school--

His mother. He could remember her face. Her smile. How she stroked his hair, and kissed his head. He could remember her face.

Then he remembered Juana.

He crashed through the door, expecting to find another room with his sister in it, but this was the camp, not a hospital, and most of the tent-buildings only had one or two rooms at all. He was outside. It was still dark, but the sun was just threatening to peek up over the horizon. The camp was eerily quiet, just the sound of his bare feet on the sand, and a cool breeze hissing over his toes.

He cocked his head. A cool breeze? In this place? It smelled different, too, and he turned into it, feeling it caress his face. He smiled without meaning to, and it wasn’t until he opened his eyes that he realized he had closed them.

He wasn’t facing north, whence the winds always came. He was facing a different direction. The wind had changed.

“El viento solano,” he murmured. An east wind.

Then he heard the shouting. Men's voices - the guards. He froze. Then he pulled himself back into the doorway he'd just come out of, trying to stay out of sight.

"They're gone!"

"Who? Which ones?"

"They... all of them!"

Miguel paled. The other kids were gone? Part of him thrilled at their escape, as much as it confused him. But where was Juana? Was she still mad at him for what he'd said about mama? Had she left him here? He cast his gaze frantically about. The camp was just... empty. Voices on the wind.

Then there were shouts. Then there was gunfire. Then there were screams.

Miguel swallowed hard. Something bad was happening out there. He knew from his papa's twitching fingers that nothing good ever came when men shot guns.

But where was Juana? He looked back into the room where he'd woken up, to the table with the medicine that tasted of strawberries. He remembered his mother's face. He remembered. He had his mother's face.

And he had the word.

He took a step forward, out into the night of bad things, to look for his sister.

Out in the camp, it sounded like a warzone, but whatever side the guards were on, they were losing. As Miguel tried to slink along the sides of buildings, heading toward the cages where the children slept, he saw shapes moving through the dawn, some the size of grown men, some much larger. They moved... wrong. Unnaturally. As if they didn't quite know how.

As Miguel turned the corner to the place where the cages were, he saw a guard backing through the next intersecting space between buildings. As he came into view, Miguel saw the pistol in his hand, but it wasn't pointed at something, exactly, and it definitely wasn't shooting. It was trembling.

Miguel froze. The man had him dead to rights if he turned, but all his attention was focused on something that was around the corner from Miguel. Judging by the way the man was looking up, he was looking at something very, very large.

A giant paw reached into view, and Miguel clapped his hand over his mouth lest he scream as it grabbed the man and dragged him back from whence he came. The man didn't yell, either, just whimpered something that sounded like "Mr. Binky?" and then vanished from sight.

Miguel blinked. The paw had been massive, and the thing that it belonged to... it must be the size of a house!

And it was a teddy bear.

There was no question. It hadn't been the limb of a real animal. It was plush. Stuffed. With features sewn on in threads as thick as a rope. Miguel wasn't sure exactly how it had even grabbed the man, since it didn't really have any fingers, but it had covered him up and then he was just... gone.

Was he? Was he gone? The sounds of fighting and screaming were coming slowly now. Had... had the teddy bears gotten them all? Had they gotten Juana?

Miguel swallowed hard, and crept to where the man had been. He slowly peeked an eye - just one eye - around the corner, uncertain of what he would see or whether his mind would allow him to see it.

Nothing. The alleyway was empty. There was no bear, no man, nothing at all except sand and the east wind.

A hand grabbed him from behind and spun him around, fingers entwining in his shirt. He looked up into the panicked face of one of the guards.

"You..." the guard spat, and Miguel saw the bandages covering up a bite mark on his arm. "It figures. At least you're real." Talking into a microphone clipped to his shoulder, he said, "I've got one of the kids, one of the fighters from today. Rendezvous in the courtyard by the main gate."

"Ten four," came the reply. "I got another one of 'em. Meet you there."

Miguel struggled and tried to pull away, but the man yanked him off-balance and dragged him down the alley and through the empty streets of the camp. The attack seemed to have stopped, or at least, the gunfire had. Even with the guard sweeping corners with his pistol, checking for danger, it didn't take long for the guard to dump Miguel's squirming form into the dust next to Javier.

"That's it," he growled. "That's the only one I was able to find. They rest of 'em, just... poof!"

"Are we it?" asked the other guard, eyes wide. "Did anybody else make it? What were those things?"

"I don't know," the first guard said. "But if they were coming for us, springing these little bastards... maybe they can tell us."

The men turned on Miguel and Javier.

"Well?" growled the one with the bandages. "What's going on here?"

He reached forward and picked up Miguel by the lapels of his shirt, pulling him up off of his feet and very close to his face. When he spoke, spittle flecked Miguel's face.

"Where are your friends, eh? Who's doing this? The cartels? Who gives a shit about you, anyway? Who?!? What have you got to say for yourself?"

Miguel looked into his eyes, and saw the fear and desperation there. He understood fear. He had known so much of it in his little life. But now he also knew something about how to beat the fear. He did have something to say. With his little feet dangling in the air, with a crazed man who had clubbed him into unconsciousness at the edge of his wits and threatening him, Miguel answered.


The east wind blew.

There was a terrific gust, and the man dropped Miguel, letting him go with one hand to shield his eyes with the other. Miguel bent his head down and did likewise as the grit and the sand peppered him, just like in his first dream.

But this was not his first dream. Now he remembered his mother's face. And now...

The umbrella snapped shut with a little click, and the wind stopped. The woman standing there took a moment to secure it, and then hung it demurely in the crook of her right elbow, the duck face on the hook nestling into her. Her skin was the color of hot chocolate, and her face had an ageless smoothness that just dared you to suggest that the years had been kind to her. She had a red hat with a round top and a short brim, with a flower tucked into it; her hair was pulled back into an orderly bun behind her head. A large gray travel bag hung from her fingers. She wore a plain blue sari, wrapped modestly around both shoulders. The straightness of her posture would have made a soldier cry.

"Excuse me," she began with a smile, her accent aristocratic and British. "I am here for the children. (Javier, close your mouth. We are not a codfish.) I am afraid we can't linger. Spit-spot!"

The man with his fingers still dug into Miguel's shirt had his gun on her in a second, as did his comrade. “Who the fuck are you?”

Tsk. Language, Phillip. My name is Mari Poppins,” she beamed. “I am practically perfect in every way. But I have heard it said that I have little patience for rudeness and impertinence. Please allow Miguel to join me; we have a very busy day ahead of us."

Heedless of the guns pointed at her, Mari stretched out her hand toward Miguel. The look in her eye was of absolute and calming surety. Miguel knew one thing for sure in that moment: he would leave this place with his hand in hers.

"Like hell," snarled Phillip the guard. "There's some really weird shit going on tonight, and nobody is going anywhere until we get those kids back. Now I know your name... but who are you? What are you doing here?"

Her outstretched hand didn't move a muscle, nor did her lips, but the corners of her eyes flattened and hardened into a look that was almost predatory. Miguel thought it was the look you would see if you looked into the face of a mother mountain lion whose cub you were holding by the scruff of its neck.

“My name is Mari Poppins,” she repeated. "I care for children who require my attention. And if you do not, this very second, release that boy from you filthy grasp, you will learn who I am.”

Phillip the guard swallowed. He looked around. One of the buildings was on fire. All of his prisoners and his fellow guards were gone, save the ones here in front of him right now. This woman had just appeared with the wind.

And she did not look like she was fucking around.

He let go of Miguel's shirt. His gun arm went slack.

Miguel picked himself up, and with Javier trailing slightly behind, he tottered over to the woman. Her smile regained its warmth, and she crouched down and took his hand into hers. Her skin was cool and soft.

"Hello, Miguel. I'm so glad you called out to me. We have quite a lot to do, you know. There are many children here to attend to. Will you help me get them back to their mamas and papas?"

He nodded slowly. He didn't want to ask what was really in his heart, so he said, "Juana?"

Mari's smile grew again. "Looking forward to seeing you, I am very sure. She took her medicine quite nicely, and is enjoying the park. Shall we join her?"

She stood up, turning to the gate. Behind her, Phillip the guard stammered out something that wanted to be a command. "N- now hold on, lady. You can't just..."

She paused, but did not look at him. "Can't? Oh, Phillip. Anything can happen, if you let it. Will you?"

Phillip looked over at the other guard, only to find himself alone. "Wh... what happened to Darnell?"

"I rather suspect it was Rumples, that hungry little scamp," Mari grinned, winking down to Miguel. "Forgotten toys often have quite a lot to discuss with the children who promised to love them best and forever. I expect you'll see Darnell again once he's had a chance to make things right."

Mari reached into her bag, and with a precise movement withdrew a charcoal pencil. "Miguel," she said, "the gate here is such an ugly thing. Can you please improve upon it?"

She pressed the pencil into Miguel's hand, gently encouraging him toward the main gate. The camp was surrounded by wire mesh walls, but the gate was a slab of steel that was easily eight feet high. It would have taken a grownup to open, and Mari was not a large woman. Miguel was a small kid, and Javier wasn't much bigger. Could the three of them open it? he wondered.

But that wasn't what Mari had asked of him. She wanted him to "improve upon" the door. What did that even mean? He looked back at her, but she just nodded at him.

What would make the gate better? Miguel's lips tightened in concentration. What did he know of gates and doorways? Racking his brain, there was only one doorway. His mama stood in its open silhouette, facing the yard with her arms wide in greeting...

Gingerly, he traced the outline of a woman, her arms outstretched. It got harder when the tears came, and he messed it up a little bit. The woman wasn't like his memory of his mama: she was facing in, her arms wide in greeting to the person on the inside.

"Miguel?" came a voice. The sweetest voice. "Miguel?"

"Mama?" he croaked, throat tight.

She tackled him, straight out of her outline on the door. He was borne back, and up, and in, and in, and in, and in... she stroked his hair as she soaked it with tears, she kissed his head and kept running her hands over his face, saying his name over and over and over and crushing him into her embrace and then staring at him in wild disbelief, babbling incoherently and whispering his name and singing to him and hugging him all over again.

It might have gone on forever. Miguel hoped that it would.

When his mama finally pulled back, he saw his sister over her shoulder. She stood in the portal framed by the gate, and behind her stretched a green park with two statues, with the sounds of children playing and of mamas and papas clinging to their children so tight that they might never let them go. Juana waved and smiled.

"You were spelling something," she smiled.

"Si," Miguel agreed. "It's a hard word."

"Quite atrocious," agreed Mari from behind. "Not everyone who needs it, can hear it. And many of those who can, they lose it when they need it most. It's not my best work."

"It's practically perfect," Miguel replied. "Where do we go now?"

Mari smiled gently at him. "I'm afraid that not everything will be easy. You have a good deal of work to do. But for right now... how would you feel about a nice game of 'A Walk in the Park'? It's one of my personal favorites."

Mari took his hand. His mother slid her hands into his and Juana's. They stepped through the gate, into a green place where anything can happen.

The wind changed. A south wind.

A man named Phillip, who used to be a guard over a camp for children and who now guarded only the desert... he closed his eyes. There was a scent of strawberries.

He smiled.

Persona - 1st Half Outline

Meeting Gwen (neophyte / victor)

April 30th. We meet a young woman named Gwen, an Arab immigrant who is on her way to work at CIA Headquarters. She is having a surly teenager's phone conversation with her mother, described as if the two were in the same room and can see one another. A security guard named Rick eyes her lewdly, and she mysteriously reveals a secret that shakes him to his core. Something is definitely strange about her.

Guin Drake is awesome (victor / neophyte)

As she tries to find a parking spot at work, Gwen finds herself mystically compelled to let another woman take the spot she was closer to. The woman gets out of her car to come and talk to Gwen, introducing herself as Guin Drake. She is unexpectedly awesome.

Into CIA, meets Mort (romance / indifference)

Gwen makes her way inside for her first day of work. We learn that Gwen is here for a purpose: to find someone. A man bumps into her, sparking an overwhelming sense of recognition, but she doesn’t know him. A young colleague named Mort spots her and flirts with her, but she isn’t interested. In the hallways, she is intrigued by a flyer advertising a dog who needs a home. Mort continues to flirt with her until she shuts him down hard.

Gwen goes to work (racism / understanding)

Gwen’s job is to escort the cleaning lady Pat around the building. Relations are strained at first because Pat is a supporter of President Ronald Triumph, who has turned racial animus into a matter of identity politics. Gwen realizes that Pat knows a great deal about the people at CIA, which could help her mission. Pat comes to see Gwen as a person worthy of respect. Gwen has a near-collision with the same man as before, and he again triggers surprisingly intense recognition. As the day winds down, Gwen calls about the dog, and Guin Drake picks up. They agree to meet that afternoon, in the CIA parking garage.

Guin Drake is dead (life / death)

Gwen goes to meet Guin Drake, but finds her dead in her car. There's a mint tea and an empty four pill pack. Gwen freaks out and removes evidence from the scene, including Guin Drake's phone, containing a text message to "Rache". The dog, Cavill, is there, and immediately takes to Gwen. She leaves the scene, intent on coming back for Cavill, but he’s at her car when she gets there. Gets a call from Doyle on Guin Drake’s phone, telling her that she’s in danger and someone is coming to pick her up. Her car is disabled and won’t start; Doyle’s voice comes through the speaker when she tries, telling her that it won’t work and she should sit tight. Doors lock, but Cavill breaks a window and they escape.

Hide and seek, bathroom bust (freedom / trapped)

Gwen dodges a grizzled military-type (Sir Kay) as she tries to find a hiding place. No one notices the dog at all, and she’s wearing the stealth suit, so no one pays her any attention. She ducks into a bathroom and thinks she’s safe, but Vivian is there, waiting. (All Vivian knows is that Guin Drake is dead and this girl was on the scene.) Vivian is threatening, but Cavill seems charmed by her. Doyle’s voice comes through Guin Drake’s phone again (even though Gwen turned it off), ordering Vivian to keep her safe: the Red Headed League is coming for her.

Investigate Guin Drake's office (doubt / trust)

Vivian is shaken: was that Sherlock Holmes? If he's involved, things are bad. They retreat to Guin Drake’s office. Gwen tries to use Guin Drake's phone to send a message to her mother, but Vivian snatches the phone before she can send it. "Your mom? Really?" "She'd be angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry."

People try to stop Vivian from going into the office, but they can't resist her. Once alone, Gwen comments on it, and Vivian asks her if it reminds her of anyone? Gwen remembers Guin Drake and how she was frozen. Vivian explains that Personae can enthrall people into their stories, and when in the presence of only Personae or thralls, can do anything their Persona could do. Guinevere could give commands.

Vivian's tricks don't work on Gwen, though she definitely feels the pull. Vivian challenges her, repeatedly. Cavill bristles at this, clearly understanding a threat to Gwen. Through verbal sparring, Gwen and Vivian come to like and respect one another. Gwen learns that Vivian is on the outs with most of Camelot: they don't trust her Persona.

Gwen wants nothing to do with any of this, but people keep saying that Guinevere killed herself, and in spite of herself Gwen can’t help but notice clues everywhere that confirm that Guinevere was murdered... and not by some faceless “league”: this was personal. She relays this to Vivian, who freaks out: Guinevere was the only one who believed in Vivian, and she’s going to have her revenge.

Gwen confirms that pennyroyal tea is present in both Guinevere’s office and was what she was drinking in the car: Guinevere was using a old wives’ tale to induce an abortion. Vivian reacts strangely: “it would only work on stories? Red Headed League be damned, we need you to read the book." She’s supposed to keep Gwen safe, but they need to get down to the Library. Sir Kay is waiting outside, and puts up token resistance, but nobody can say no to Vivian for long. "Gosh, I wonder why they don't trust you." Kay appreciates Gwen's snark - she feels like he gets her.

Before they leave, Gwen spies a name scrawled on a piece of paper: Raskolnikov.

Attacked by Red Headed League (safety / danger)

Vivian has Gwen close her eyes and pick a book at random. Gwen flips through the pages, stopping at random, and plants her finger in the middle of the page. Vivian is taken aback: the queen?

The Red Headed League attacks as they are getting their bearings, led by Mort. He seems genuinely regretful as he tries to kill Gwen “before she becomes too powerful”. Sir Kay dies during the fight. Looking bad when the attackers are annihilated by a pincer move from Lancelot and Doyle. Vivian realizes Gwen is the new Guinevere.

Doyle names the Queen (Guinevere's death a suicide / Guinevere murdered)

The Camelot people seem afraid of Doyle... everyone knows what happens when Sherlock Holmes enters the field. Does he follow Death, or is it the other way around? No one's ever seen him before, but they know stories...

Lancelot asks how they could have beaten a knight, and Doyle walks through it: the League must be composed of bit players, so a Persona's abilities and plot armor wouldn't work. Doyle and Lance had glamoured up before joining the fray, so they had a few seconds before anyone had time to skepticize them. Someone is weaponizing bit players against Personae, someone who knows they can only use their characters' abilities in front of other Personae or thralls. Lancelot grumbles that it takes time to lay a glamour, and Doyle agrees that's precisely the point: to kill them before they are anything other than ordinary men. Gwen points out that in the Sherlock Holmes story, the "Red Headed League" is just a red herring to distract from a more serious crime. Doyle seems to notice her for the first time.

He kneels and calls her "Highness". The others do likewise.

Doyle explains that Guinevere killed herself, and Gwen was a secundus: someone whose story strongly aligns with a Persona. Sometimes, proximity is all it takes: she was nearby when the old Guinevere died, and the Persona jumped to her. Gwen points out that this has to look bad... especially given that she stands to benefit by being the new queen. Doyle says it's inconceivable that someone could have gotten the drop on a Persona as powerful as Guinevere, until Lance points out the Red Headed League apparently exists to do exactly that. Doyle confirms Arthur is aware of the situation and agrees that it's concerning. Until they can sort this out, Gwen is to be kept away from the affairs of New Camelot, until her motives can be shown to be pure.

Gwen knows that it's inviting trouble, but she just can't let the murder slide. She realizes that, if she's going to get her own mission accomplished, she had better find the real murderer: if they do any real sniffing, they're going to figure out it was murder, and then she'll get locked down even more by New Camelot. She knows it wasn't her, but until she can prove it, they won't trust her. And she needs access to New Camelot.

While Doyle and Lancelot make plans to squirrel Gwen away, she pulls Vivian aside: Guinevere was murdered, it wasn't Gwen, and she can't get pushed out of New Camelot. She reveals to Vivian that her brother was murdered, and she's sure that someone in New Camelot knows why. If Vivian will help her out, Gwen will make sure she gets first crack at Guinevere's murderer. A deal is struck.

Vivian drags Gwen back to Doyle, insisting that it's too convenient that she just shows up like this. They have to take the possibility that Guinevere was murdered seriously. There was this weird message on Guinevere's phone: "Rache". Doyle examines the phone and observes that there's an address book entry for Senator Rachel Rance, who's heading up the Senate hearings today... the ones Gwen's father is also involved in. Gwen sees the pattern: King Reince attacking Leodegrance, the original Guinevere's father - this means her dad is in danger. Doyle says they'll take care of it, but Gwen gives an impassioned speech about clearing her name and it's not even Camelot business: it's Guinevere's business. Doyle relents. Meanwhile, it's clear to reader that Gwen's true motive is to question Rance, but she hides this from the others.

Vivian is going to come with, but Doyle tells her she can't. She resists, and he basically threatens to tell Arthur that she's not toeing the line about his wife's murder. It seems arbitrary and weird. She relents. She does return Guinevere's phone to Gwen, and it's got a hidden message: "I can read men, know what they want. Doyle's going to try to pin Guinevere's death on you. Don't trust him."

Arrival at the Capitol (trapped / freedom)

Gwen and Doyle bicker their entire way to the Hill, almost like siblings. Neither quite has the upper hand on the other, and they misunderstand one another constantly. There's a moment when they are both perfectly awkward with one another in a sexually suggestive way, and they mutually recoil, and then laugh. Then he asks her a veiled question about Guinevere's death, and she tenses back up.

There is a colorful protest going on both outside and inside the building. Gwen and Doyle debate about where Gwen will wait while Doyle secures her father. Doyle presents her with a dress suitable to attending a Senate hearing, and gets her to agree that she'll wait long enough to put the dress on, claiming that it won't take any longer than that to make sure he's safe. Doyle leaves her in her father Leo’s office, where they’ve just missed him.

After he leaves, Guin starts stripping in the middle of the office, pulling a quick change into the dress he got her and has her makeup done in seconds flat, with the help of several staffers who've clearly done this before. (The chief of staff is scandalized but again, he's used to it.)

Rance (Guinevere murdered / Guinevere killed herself)

Gwen immediately leaves and talks her way into Senator Rance’s office. (She tells Cavill he can't accompany her: Rance is allergic.) They greet each other with familiarity but not special affection: we kind of hit the reader over the head with the fact that there's backstory they don't know.

When Rance resists being questioned, Gwen wastes no time: I've studied your case. Did you know that your successor has been acting strangely at Jenny's? Might have murderous intent, and you know what'll happen if he spills blood on a Hallows. You might be closer to being a secundus than you think. We could reunite you with the Persona you lost...?

R: You're a bitch. Guinevere wanted to know the same thing that you did: how I lost my Persona. She wanted to avoid it. (There is clear affection on Rance's part for Guinevere.) She was happy, in such a good place, so strong, but she worried about how he would react when she told him...

There's a strange sensation, like the universe getting goosebumps. Rance shakes her head. "She was so depressed. It's a tragedy, what she did to herself."

Gwen calls her on the change of tune, but Rance insists that Gwen was terribly upset. Gwen doesn't see any deception - something happened. Someone did something, and now the story has changed. She bids Rance farewell, calling her “Raskolnikov”.

Rance heads out the door and is handed a briefcase by her assistant. Gwen is unsettled. She's convinced Rance has no intention of an attack on her father, but the sudden change in tune bothers her. She lingers a moment, searching the room with her eyes for a clue as to what happened. Then she's tased from behind by the assistant, Kay, who whispers, "Can't have you swooping in to save the old man..."

Rescue by Doyle (danger / safety, trust / mistrust)

Kay ties her up and leaves without a further word, in a hurry. Doyle busts in seconds later and frees her. He scolds her for leaving the safety of her father's office, and tells her that Sir Lamorak is dead and Sir Geraint is missing. The security that was here, isn’t.

[They leave Rance's office, with a small, spherical rolling drone of Doyle's leading the way. He periodically stops and directs them down different hallways, evidently leading them around people who he can't cross-reference to Congressional staff databases.]

Then there's the question of what she was doing here, how she knows so much about Personae, and how she knows the former Raskolnikov. There's the question of why Kay didn't kill her. Doyle knows Gwen hasn't been on the level - for a moment, he looks at her and wonders aloud if he did the right thing by untying her.

"I can't trust you. But I may not have a choice: Arthur's security detail is dead or missing, and the woman who got the drop on you seems to think you could do something to disrupt her plans. That leads me to conclude that either she's a fool, or I am. I can't trust you. Your father's life is in the balance. Can I count on you?"

Gwen retorts that Doyle knows an awful lot about her whereabouts and conversations: she knows the dress he gave her is bugged. "So what's changed? You didn't trust me before. But you can count on me. You can count on me never to let someone surprise me twice. She's not after my father: she's after Arthur. And she can't have him."

Senate Chambers

Doyle prepares to send a drone into the hearings when Gwen steps up to a security guard and hugs him. "Room for one more?" He squints at her, but smiles and tells her he'd do anything for Senator DeGrace's little girl, after how the Senator helped straighten out his son's benefits. "Can't get your boy in, though - it's packed in there." Doyle looks ready to protest, then hands her an earring and walks off.

The earring has a bone-conductive audio system, and Doyle clearly has eyes inside every camera in the room. He starts to dictate plans to her when she hears a familiar throat clearing: her mother is there!

Mom grills her while Doyle tries to get her to answer his questions about what's going on in the room. Meanwhile, Gwen realizes that Arthur is giving testimony to the Senate panel led by Rance and her father, addressing allegations that he is involved in a campaign to undermine President Ronald Triumph.

There are three simultaneous threads going on: a whispered and nonverbal fight with her mother, covert with Doyle while talking to her mother, and Arthur's speech in defense of his actions to defend democracy and America. Gwen is accusing her mother of wanting to forget about someone who died, Doyle can't find the bomb, and Arthur basically spells out how Triumph (aka Trump) is evil incarnate.

Lancelot arrives and seats himself behind Arthur, but not before spotting Gwen and giving her a "what are you doing here?" look.

Gwen's mom essentially tells her, "I didn't want the past to ruin your life, but if you think you can put this ghost to rest, you do it." Arthur has the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand as he invokes his wife's suicide in his announcement that he is running for President on a platform of making Triumph answer for his crimes. Gwen feels the universe shudder again, only to hear Doyle shouting in her ear, "do you hear me, I found the bomb! It's in Rance's briefcase!"

Gwen's father, Leo, praises Arthur, but Rance makes a veiled threat. Arthur and Lancelot rush the podium, tackling Leo. Gwen sees Kay enter the room and an explosion rips the chambers apart.

Explosion aftermath

Gwen's father is utterly unhurt. Arthur is saved by Lancelot, who dies; Rance has been hit in the neck by shrapnel. Or so it seems: Gwen sees Arthur palm a blood-soaked pen from where her body lays.

She meets him, and it's electric, like fate and battery acid. She offers her condolences for his loss, and he calls it a tragic suicide. She feels the universe shudder.

There are no other casualties, just some minor injuries. Cavill shows up, and Gwen begins bouncing theories off of him. It's clear to Gwen that the explosive was precise and aimed at her father... but it didn't go off until Kay entered the room. It wasn't for her father: it was for Arthur, a trap laid by someone who knew he'd expect Rance to go after Leo because that's what happens in the stories. A mundane attack: the Red Headed League.

Kay has red hair.

Pursuit of Kay; Doyle vs... Sherlock?

Gwen sees Kay in the room, eyes meet, and Kay flees. Gwen chases.

Doyle is waiting to intercept, and berates her for betraying his trust again by trying to chase Kay by herself. Gwen's inner Sherlock plots multiple ways to take him out (do we see her do the time rewind thing here while planning her counterattacks?), but she doesn't. He seems genuinely concerned for her safety, and they spar over her ability to take care of herself. Finally he says it: this is Moriarty we're talking about, and Guinevere can't take him.

At that point, Gwen holds up the microphone and battery from the dress he'd given her, and tells him to try to track her position. There's no signal... because she flattened the transmitter five minutes ago.

"That 'conversation' you heard with the dog... do you really think I was talking to the dog? He's pretty, no doubt - whosagoodboy? - but not exactly a rocket surgeon. That was for you, to keep you from noticing that I'd crushed your GPS transmitter. You were focused on what I was saying, not what I was doing."

She walks him through what actually happened after she talked to Arthur, which is that she saw Kay leaving the room and took off in hot pursuit. [We drop back into the same tense as the rest of the novel, as if we're watching it happen instead of her retelling it.] As she trails Kay through the fleeing protesters, she pulls a variety of quick changes using items she pilfers from people in the crowd. She winds up looking like a page, and opens the door to Kay’s cab in time to hear Kay ask for D.O. Jenny's Club.

"You're not Guinevere," he whispers incredulously.

"And you're not Sherlock Holmes," Gwen answers. "He was the one Persona I knew you couldn't be."

He gives her his Sherlock coat, and admits that he's Merlin. He tells her that the text that had been on Guinevere’s phone has disappeared. He can find no evidence of it, and WATSON claims that there never was such a text. Instead, there’s a goodbye letter to her husband. Gwen remembers Arthur’s insistence that it was a suicide.

Vivian shows up and they race off.

Persona - First 10 pages

Chapter 01: A Study in Shamrock

When they gave me the badge, they gave me the first lie.

Like a good lie, it was elegant in its simplicity: blue border, photograph. The girl there, striving to be a woman with her unruly black hair, dark eyes, and cappuccino skin, her gaze piercing the camera as if trying to do it one better. There was no adornment, nothing indicating to any who might find it if it were picked up on the street that it was anything but an ordinary identification card. Of course, that curious discoverer might puzzle at the lack of a name, lack of a logo, lack of anything that might signal what this photo badge could possibly identify. It was conspicuous in its plainness.

That was how it worked at the company. You only noticed that you hadn’t noticed after we reminded you that you’d already missed it.

The uniform was another lie. It was a stealth suit.

We didn’t do ninja stealth. Oh, man, ninjas! Rookies. Guys, when you’re up there with Nazis and Imperial Stormtroopers in terms of your body count in any given movie, you are clearly screwing up at invisibility.

Look left. Now look right. See that person over there, wearing the thing?

That’s not me. I’m the one standing behind the ninja.

Didn’t see me? That’s because the stealth suit is green. It’s the color of a shamrock shake that’s had special ops training. Actual, honest-to-god spies can’t see the stealth suit. These people who are trained to Wage War on Terror, the ones we entrust to find shoe bombs and suicide belts and needles in very sandy haystacks take one look at the stealth suit, and their brains say "nope".

I wasn’t wearing it at the moment, because Reem ar-Rahmani DeGrace had expressed Opinions on her only daughter leaving the house wearing shoulder pads. “I taught you better,” she had huffed when I showed it to her. “Absolutely not.”

I’d debated whether or not it would be more indifferent to shrug or just stare, and went with the latter. “OK.”

“Did you just not argue with me?” she’d cocked her head, confused.

“Gotta keep you off-balance. I’ll be extra shitty to you when you get back from... wherever you’re going this time.”

Saudi Arabia. Lecturing on a cultural reclamation conference for Yemeni heritage.

“I canceled it,” she had surprised me right back. “The organizer is a letch and I got tired of his suggestions as to what I might wear to the reception. Since none of my colleagues had even heard of it, I’m fairly convinced it was conceived as more of a private affair, and he has nothing to offer me that would make enduring that worthwhile. Are you wearing makeup?”

I had put on a touch of eyeliner that morning, but I’d snorted in her face. “Do I ever?”

"My dear Gwen, I only want what’s best for you. We live in America now, where a little makeup will not kill you, but too little might. You could at least do your nails for your first day of work."

Eye rolls are like egg rolls but extra delicious. “And have more creepy old men who you’ve invited to parties at our house come up to me and tell me that I’ve inherited your figure? Gosh, that’d be great. Maybe this time I actually will show him my bedroom.”

She’d sighed and kissed my forehead and swept me off to work with a muttered imprecation in Arabic. On her way out the door she reflexively checked herself in the mirror - a simple pantsuit on some women became lips, tits, and ass on my mother - and gave a curt nod of approval.

I’d trailed behind, slouching. The girl who looked back at me may have inherited her figure, but hadn’t gotten any of her penchant for leveraging it. I knew girls with serious acne who had serious boyfriends. My moneymaker? Strictly pro bono.

Well… there was Vic. But he definitely liked me for my brain. That was… complicated.

As I pushed recent arguments out of my mind, my eyes lit again on my unadorned fingernails. I sighed. Blinking into the rearview mirror, I was acutely aware of my badly disciplined hair - dark, ropy strands struggling against a ponytail - and then of my elbows, which fumbled past each other as I swung the steering wheel of my brand new Audi to the right and drove past the guard shack outside of work. Inside the tiny building of brick and mirrored glass was a man with a gun big enough to punch through an elephant made of cinder blocks eight hundred times per minute. He didn't even need to open the door to kill you. Keep those elbows steady, girl.

The road split as the trees reached overhead, and I joined the line of dark men and women proceeding to the security checkpoint that straddled the path ahead. Many of the cars had open windows: with gas prices hiked yet again, air conditioning was a luxury people chose to forego despite the suffocating heat of the DC summer. My new ride was electric: mom would not have me contributing to President Ronald Triumph’s oil wars, and we could afford the new "infrastructure tax" that was supposed to offset our increased burden on the electric grid. As dad pointed out, it was also offsetting our lack of financial support for the oil wars, but my mother had been emphatic. And she knew how to leverage.

To the right, the fork in the road led to the Visitor's Center, where yesterday I'd presented myself and my unadorned fingernails for onboarding. Then, I'd needed my ID, my social security card, and a second photo ID; I’d brought my recent high school diploma for moral support. Today, the only things standing between me and company headquarters were a scanner and the heavily-armed man holding it.

It was time for the lie.

I pulled the car to a halt in the dappled shade of the trees over the checkpoint, rolled the window down, and presented my ID to the guard. He was a burly man in a police officer’s uniform: crisply-pressed but not starched, with a single straw-colored hair caught on the epaulet on his shoulder. A napkin was stuffed into his pants pocket, with the number two in black ink disappearing into his trousers. I could see immediately that he was a cat person. His hair was close-cropped and brown, with a fading sunburn that crept over his scalp. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes had the flatness of someone who half-expected violence at any time. Typical beat cop. He could have been on a stroll through your neighborhood, making sure people didn't jaywalk or go streaking or murder one another.

Except that in his left hand he was holding a funny little scanner-thing, and his right rested on the M16A2 assault rifle that was slung over his shoulder.

"Morning!" he greeted me brightly, eyes flickering vaguely to my badge and face before touching down on my breasts. The sun glinted off of a ring as he reached the scanner toward my outstretched badge.

BEEP, beeped the scanner.

"See you around," he nodded to my chest.

My back straightened minutely, an instinctive reaction that probably only made things worse. I had on a sensible white button-up blouse, not some kind of crop top. My cleavage wasn't cleaving. Come on, man.

And then my mouth opened.

"You will, Rick, in the course of our respective professional engagements!" I waved to him. "Also, stop telling yourself that your wife is probably cheating on you: she is not. She loves you. She is behaving strangely because she is pregnant, but the two of you never wanted children. She has not yet figured out how to tell you, because she wants to keep the baby. That attractive blonde you have been flirting with is not worth it. Clean up your life because fatherhood is a serious responsibility. I have a baby brother, and I tell you, the diapers alone…"

He looked like he was choking for a second. "What the… Pregnant? How do you…?" His eyes narrowed. "Did Shelly put you up to this, you little terrorist? Blonde? Have you been spying on me? I’ve got a buddy who’s an ICE Marshall… I can have you on the Wall in a hot- hey, I'm talking to you!"

My foot accelerated my mouth away from him. His sunburn got redder in my rearview for a moment, and he took a half-step after my retreating tail lights. His lip curled as he thought better of it and turned back to the line of cars.

I sighed. My mouth opening was why I had no friends.

His assertion that you are a terrorist was unsupported and likely motivated by racist ideology. You would not want that cretin for a friend.

Oh, be nice. Crass or not, he'd had no defense against my party tricks. Vic had warned me about upsetting the villagers.

A certain arrogance comes with the arrangement, I fear. That said, you are entering a realm where few will appreciate you revealing their secrets.

That’s me. Brown and under-appreciated.

I had a late start today, and was arriving just as the most convenient parking lot went from all-reserved to free-for-all. If you’d had a personal spot and you hadn’t parked there by now, tough luck: the great unwashed were here, ready take advantage of the nine-A.M. switch from "reserved" to "open" to save themselves a fifteen minute walk from the Purple Lot. Several others were already sharking the aisles, and I quickly spied an open space a short way from the entrance.

I was heading towards it as a red SUV came zipping toward me, its driver intent on claiming my prize. With a grin, I eased my foot onto the gas pedal… or at least, I tried. My foot had other ideas, and used the fat pedal to bring the Audi to a smooth halt.

My eyes were likewise fixated on commands coming from outside my brain. The blonde woman who slid into the parking spot in front of me caught them with her own before she disappeared into the spot. "I’m sorry," they seemed to say. "We’ve all got party tricks."

I held still and counted out three long breaths. The SUV’s brake lights died with its engine, and a moment later, I saw the door open and close. I still hadn’t moved.

Experimentally, I flexed my toes. Yes, that worked. Fingers wiggled. Foot?

Would. Not. Move.


Rather than heading into the building, the woman walked toward my car. She was tall, blonde, and striking. Her red suit matched the tint of her car perfectly. She didn’t look from side to side: her eyes were focused on what was in front of her and nothing else. She was beautiful, but in a tertiary way: if you saw her up close it would be the last thing you noticed about her. Your first two impulses would be to get the hell out of her way, or to do whatever she wanted.

I’d done both already.

She strode to my passenger window and leaned in, which was my first clue that I’d opened it. The movement was relaxed and unthreatening. Someone coming to your driver’s side window just makes you want to roll it up, but on your passenger side, they couldn’t reach you. I unclenched a bit. Then I realized that I hadn’t meant to open the window, and didn’t even remember pushing the button. My body was playing to someone else’s tune, and that someone was leaning in my window. I puckered right up again.

There was… something, though. She looked… so familiar. But I’d never met her. Of that much, I was positive: I had never met anyone like this before.

But yet…

"Thanks for stopping," she smiled, eyes crinkled, "I’m really glad you did. I wanted to apologize for zipping into the spot like that."

The angle of her head, the tilt of her back… The closest my mother had come to getting me to study makeup was her dogged support of my interest in Drama Club. She’d canceled about a dozen trips and personally driven me to every rehearsal, every play, every night. She’d left the Sultan of Brunei hanging to make sure that I got to opening night when they called me up from understudying Lady Macbeth because a nasty stomach bug had taken out the lead actress. Theater was the one thing I did in high school other than homework, and a few years of hanging around with thespians had sharpened my radar for faked emotion. This woman’s smile was just what it seemed to be: pleased and grateful to me.

"It… it’s no big deal," said my mouth, while my mind was shouting that it was indeed a very big deal. Part of my brain had been cataloging the parking spaces that were being picked off as the seconds ticked by, and I was currently two spots away from a Purple Lot death march.

She beamed. "That’s great to hear. This actually is my spot, but…" she tapped her watch, "… I’m totally late. You’d have been in your rights to take it. I appreciate it very much."

I smiled back, in spite of myself. There was a black sedan that… One spot left. "You looked like you were in a big rush. I’ve got fifteen minutes before my shift starts."

Which if I didn’t get going right now were going to be spent fast-walking in the moderately-but-not-completely-sensible heels my mother had just bought me, so let’s just rolllllll up the window…

"Shift?" she asked, her urgency for the parking spot now forgotten. "Are you with Security?"

"Green Shirt," I admitted. "It’s my first day."

"Oh my gosh!" She actually put her hand to her mouth. "First day? Welcome aboard! Guin Drake. CTC/COPS."

Guin: she pronounced it with a "W". Almost like…

"Gwen," I said. "Er, DeGrace. Not-that-kind-of Escort Services."

She giggled. I put her age somewhere in her late thirties, but she moved and spoke like a much younger woman. "I’m not that kind of cop, so no worries. We’re morally flexible here. The truth is a message, not a mountain."

She laughed again at my expression, which was trying to decide whether to be embarrassed or confused. "It stands for ‘Chief of Operations’. It’s my job to make sure the dirty jobs get done. So I can give you a list of escort services alphabetically, by country, or by star rating. But I can probably take the word of Senator DeGrace’s stepdaughter that she isn’t that kind of escort."

Her eyes twinkled as I flinched. "Honey, it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out who you are. I believe your stepdad puts my husband in the hot seat on the regular, which is why we never make it to any of your mom’s soirees. Goddamn shame about the conflict of interest, because I’ve heard rumors… Maybe you can sneak me in sometime? It’s a pleasure to finally meet you."

Chief of Operations for the Counterterrorism Center. She was four or five steps from being the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Pleasure to meet me!

I blushed. "Uh… you too? And I try not to hang out at the parties."

Characteristically suave. By the by, the last parking spot has been occupied.

"Because they’re full of old men who make wildly inappropriate comments and think you don’t get it, or else don’t give a damn?" She put her finger to the side of her nose. Her fingernails were the same red as her car and her suit. "I have sources… including having been eighteen myself, once. And yes, I saw that panicky look on your face when I dropped your stepdad’s name. Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me."

"I mean, it’s not like he pulled strings…" I objected.

He pulled strings.

She smiled again. "Honey, ‘strings’ are how the world works. It’s like a violin. Strike a bow, and there’s music. For the right tune, there are plenty of people listening." She leaned in. "I’ll very much enjoy hearing what you have to play. You’re not destined to be a Green Shirt for long."

There was a flicker in the air between us. The universe vibrated in C major.

She winked, and the strings hushed. "Gotta run. Need to see a man about a sex tape. Good luck!"

I watched her go for a moment. For as long as I could remember, my mother had been my idea of what it meant to be a strong woman. Mom didn’t walk so much as she flourished. Where she passed, eyes followed.

Guin Drake didn’t walk, either: she strode. My eyes weren’t prone to playing tricks, but I swear that I saw parked cars scramble to get out of her way.

I checked my nails. Red wouldn’t look so bad.

Then I remembered the clock, and the Purple Lot.


It turned out to be a long walk. There wasn’t a great way to get from the Purple Lot to the one entrance of the building that I’d ever used, and that was the only route I knew to get to the squad room where I’d start my shift. Even without my stealth suit, I was sweating lightly in the late summer haze. As I headed inside and the turnstiles signaled their approval of my badge and PIN code with a loud chirp, I felt a thrill shiver up my spine. Thoughts of red fingernails faded as I breathed deeply.

I couldn't help but feel like I'd fooled them all: I couldn't really be walking through CIA Headquarters on my own, barely eighteen and with more questions than befit my station. But nobody looked at me twice.

I shouldered my way into the green blazer I'd brought, and the inattention became a void that sucked at me, made me want to scream at them all, those dark-clad men and women who held the fate of the world in their crooked minds. Beneath that coat of shamrock, all the things that too-shy high school boys and dirty old men and lonely security guards noticed smeared away into the kind of invisibility that the spies around me trained for years to attain. With one wardrobe selection, I had gone off the grid.

I stood there, a long blank hallway in front of me and a museum of Agency history on my right, and I caught a faint patina on the air, a wisp of familiar memory. It could be nothing else.

He was here.