What became of Krakky? A cut scene from Spotless 5...

What became of Krakky?

Here’s a scene that didn’t make the cut in Spotless #5, but that I loved. For those of you who wonder what became of Krakky and Hadrian Ellingham after Beating Ruby…

It is now five pm, and I’m sitting in a meeting room on the fifty-ninth floor of EM Group International headquarters. Facing Satan.

Or rather, facing my former big boss’s big boss: Hadrian Ellingham, CEO of EM Group. Super billionaire, possibly a Nazi robot, loves all things Japanese, especially the food. Of course, I never worked directly under his orders: two years ago, I used to be a software engineer at EM Tech, a subsidiary of EM Group. I was a speck of dust under his sole, one of the 80,000 podlings who received their “Tomorrow comes today” T-shirt for Christmas in exchange for their life essence the rest of the year.

As I said earlier, a lot of stuff happened since. I won’t go over the details of what I believe should be made into a movie, but let’s just say I got embroiled in a major hacking incident that would have cost EM seven-hundred million dollars if March and I hadn’t recovered their money—as in literally plucked it back from the claws of a pack of man-eating platypuses! You’d think I’d have gotten a raise, or even a USB mini fridge over this, but Ellingham fired me because he’s an ungrateful douching apparatus.

Having said all this, guess who’s nonetheless still interested in cutting edge encryption protocols for his business? And guess who’s now a private contractor with a shiny degree from Columbia engineering and intimate knowledge of EM’s IT infrastructure? Also, I’m wearing an itchy black blazer and a pencil skirt. I’m totally qualified for this.

My spine has never been straighter as I stare at the pair of aliens sitting across a mile-long meeting table: a vampire in a stiff charcoal suit, with pale blue eyes and slicked-back blonde hair—Ellingham—and his sidekick, a brunette in her late thirties who always wears her red pleated Issey Miyake dress when Ellingham is around—Kerri Lavalle, CEO of EM Tech.

Grazing my laptop’s touchpad to display the last slide of my keynote, I’m careful not to smile or fidget as I drop my final and best line. “It’s a global race out there: the Chinese government is already moving to optical fiber quantum encryption as we speak. I’m not telling you you’re a step ahead of everyone else, I’m saying you’re barely on time for the quantum party.”

The silence that follows my presentation is so thick I’m starting to question reality itself. Have these two noticed that I’ve been sitting across from them for the past fifteen minutes? Am I even in this meeting room? Do I really exist if the quarks composing my atoms can never be directly observed?

Reflected in floor-to-ceiling windows and polished chrome panels decorating the walls, Ellingham trails a bored, icy gaze over the notes on his tablet. Maybe it’s not even the memo I sent him. Maybe he’s checking his mail or his Kawaii Farm ranking—there’s a persistent rumor at EMG that he’s secretly playing. Dammit, I can’t tell because he’s not saying anything, and he looks dead inside, like a store mannequin. Lavalle won’t speak either—she’d never dare to steal his thunder.

I lean back in my chair with my arms crossed and a deadpan face of my own—March does that when a client is hiding something from him or tries to negotiate Struthio’s daily rate.

Ellingham lets go of the tablet to cross his arms too. I brace myself and reach to shut down my laptop. This is the moment of truth… He nods once to himself and at last, speaks. “I see. Miss Chaptal. Follow me. I want you to meet one of our best analysts.”

Wow. Maybe that went better than I thought. Lavalle too shoots up from her chair though, her diaphanous pleated dress billowing around her. Ellingham raises his hand again. “You can leave us, Kerri.”

She whisper-squeaks, “But, Hadrian!”

He grabs his tablet and turns without so much as a glance for her flushing face. “I’ll email you.”

I press my lips tight not to snicker. Yeah Kerri, you don’t get to do the rest of our secret meeting. Because we’re all playing in a remake of Mean Girls and Ellingham is basically Regina.

After Lavalle stomps off, I take my laptop and warily trot out of the meeting room on Ellingham’s heels. We breeze down a dark-paneled hallway past a couple execs and assistants who don’t even dare to look at him. They lower their gaze when it meets mine too, making me realize that Ellingham’s nefarious aura acts like a force field shielding me from corporate assholery. He doesn’t even need to open the upholstered doors to his office: they mysteriously part as he approaches—I’d call it black magic, if I hadn’t noticed the tiny lens of an iris scanner encased in the wall near the doors.

I stare down at my ballet flats as they pass the brass threshold slicing through EM’s signature taupe carpet, toes curling in excitement: I seriously made it all the way to the top! I grip my laptop tighter, ready to sell him at least two weeks’ worth of outrageously overpriced consulting. March has never raised the issue, but I can’t ignore that with his extensive roster of more or less frequentable acquaintances, he brings home a lot more business than I do—all of the business, really. I want to come home tonight knowing I deserve my fifty percent share in Struthio. Island Chaptal: here to win!

A flash of turquoise register to my right, and I freeze in the middle of that minimalist cathedral overlooking Manhattan. Ellingham stopped in front of an aquarium that takes most of the wall behind his ebony desk.

“I presume there’s no need for introductions?” he says, and I could swear that the faint cleft lip scar streaking his cupid bow stirred. Not quite a smile, but nonetheless a sign of life.

My brow furrows in rising confusion until a pair of tentacles unfurl from behind a big rock inside the tank. An algae bush undulates suspiciously, and at last, the aquarium’s sole occupant swirls into view. An octopus, stretching gracious sand-colored limbs before flattening its innumerable suction cups to the glass.

Oh my God… “It’s Krakky!” I chirp, remembering the tiny, gooey baby octopus I saved from my plate at Ellingham’s favorite Japanese restaurant, a year and a half ago.

Bertram,” Ellingham corrects, a touch of irritation to his voice.

Oh. I wrestle my cringe into a genial smile. I can’t say I like the cigar lounge vibe of it, but I guess it makes sense. Krakky moved from Mesa’s kitchen to a thirty-feet long floor-to-ceiling private aquarium sitting at the top of a skyscraper its employees have nicknamed The Castle because of its cutting-edge facilities and electronic Japanese toilets: he needs the name to go with his elevated social status. Man, he can even watch TV from here, I muse, noticing a glossy multiscreen display facing the tank and Ellingham’s desk across the room.

Recalling the exact chain of events that catapulted a young invertebrate from my sushi plate to Ellingham’s capitalistic claws, I ask: “So you really hired him to predict market trends?”

“Yes,” Ellingham confirms, leaning against his desk. It’s weird to see him . . . sort of relax. “And he’s exceeded my expectations.” Krak—Bertram’s rectangular pupils seem to widen as if he could understand his boss. Ellingham’s mouth goes tight as he adds. “In almost every aspect.”

Bertram’s tentacles coil around his body as he whirls away from the window to fiddle with a bunch of colored cubes lying in the sand. I watch him, fascinated. “How does it work? Does he, like, communicate?”

Ellingham moves closer to the tank. “Yes. We had his cognitive abilities evaluated shortly after he joined the group. His analytical skills were prodigious, especially considering his atypical academic background. He scored better than several tier-two applicants two weeks after we started training him.”

“But . . . training him how, exactly?”

A self-satisfied smirk cracks Ellingham’s controlled facade as he picks up a touch remote from his desk. “See for yourself.” His fingers flutter across the touch screen, prompting a pair of charts to pop up on the screens facing Bertram’s tank. According to their legend, they’re fourth-quarter projections for global refined indium market rates. One features a red line, and clearly predicts a stiff dive, whereas the other is blue and promises steady but limited growth. Ellingham raps at the aquarium’s glass with his knuckles to summon Bertram—who’s been busy burying his cubes under the sand until now. “Give me your opinion,” he says.

The octopus pauses in his business to turn narrowed eyes to the screen. Barely two seconds later, the water becomes clouded with silvery particles as Bertram frantically digs out one of his cubes. The red one. He coils a tentacle around it and swims back toward us, before using the cube to knock at the glass.

“He chose red,” I murmur, not daring to suggest that maybe Bertram just likes that color.

“He did,” Ellingham replies gravely. “His previsions turned negative three weeks ago and have remained consistent since. Market correction started on Monday, and we saved hundreds of millions by selling last week before rates plummeted.”

My hand flies to my mouth to conceal an amazed grin. “But how does he do it?”

“Like every single analyst out there. It’s not magic Miss Chaptal,” Ellingham snaps, his upper lip curling in disdain. “He watches market trends and analyzes public communications and insider intel.” He motions to the multiscreen display. “We feed him keynotes reports, and he watches a dozen different business channels. He favors Bloomberg, Reuters, but he’s not fond of CNBC, and we’ve noticed he seems to struggle with Hindi and Portuguese channels.”

“You make him watch financial stuff twenty-four seven?” I gasp, eyeing the mosaic of screens in horror.

As if he could hear us—and I suspect a sound system allows him to—Bertram flurries across the tank to wrap his tentacles around one of the cubes still resting in the sand. A black one. Once he has a firm grip on the toy, he uses it to tap at the glass urgently. I can’t help but to press my palm to the tank’s cool window, my lips parted in silent stupefaction. Ellingham wasn’t kidding: Bertram is seriously smart, although I have no idea what he wants as he keeps rapping his cube at the glass.

Ellingham’s nostrils flare. His jaw set, he shakes his head. “We’ve already discussed this. You may not watch Bravo during office hours.”

Bertram immediately drops the cube and dashes behind his rock in a vengeful cloud of ink.

His eyes angry blue slits, Ellingham opens his top drawer to retrieve a white cube, which he taps against the tank’s window much like Bertram did before. “Keep giving me attitude and I might forget to turn it on before I leave for the weekend.” He shakes his head and admits in a sigh, “He’s obsessed with Million Dollar Listing.”

I’m thinking, ‘Like father, like son’, but I don’t dare to say it out loud. Ellingham looks pissed enough as it is. “Maybe he does deserve a little extra Bravo for predicting the rise of quantum encryption techs,” I venture. When Ellingham’s brow creases and betrays the slightest hesitation, I push my advantage. “Plus, it’s Friday afternoon: it’s pretty much the weekend already.”

Ellingham’s mouth presses until his scar turns white, but he reaches for the remote and flips through the channels until a wild electro beat blares from the TV’s speakers. An overexcited New York realtor appears on screen, yelling in his iPhone, “Eight point six plus changes for Madison Square Park is a joke. Give me something to work with!”

Bertram immediately slithers out of his hiding spot and glues his suction cups to the glass. Unbelievable… I read conflicting reports that octopuses are deaf but can pick up and react to sound vibrations, which leads me to wonder what a three-beds four baths condo negotiation sounds—or feels—like for a cephalopod. Great, if I’m judging by the way his pupils are widening and he’s rapidly changing colors. As the numbers and the pressure rise between the buyer and seller, Bertram’s skin turns all shades of azure, orange, and silver, reflecting the bright sky, fierce spray tans, and skyscrapers flashing onscreen.

Ellingham dials down the volume, before his cold gaze lands back on me, firing ice shurikens my way. “Let’s leave Bertram to his entertainment.” He crosses his arms again. Defensive stance: bad news. “Now, Miss Chaptal, how much do you expect me to pay for the certainty that no one anywhere on earth will be able to intercept EMG’s communications, not even by physically tapping our optical fiber cables?”

I release a calming breath and crack my knuckles. “Well, the good news is that my consulting fees are gonna be a drop of water in your overall budget.”

March 26

March 26

Here’s a short chapter taking place between SPOTLESS and BEATING RUBY, from March’s point of view. 🙂


 

Good grief, he’s been hard since page five, and it’s not going away anytime soon. This is one of the things I don’t understand about her books: the constant, maddening, life-threatening, soul-sucking erections. For Christ’s sake, he grew a joystick two paragraphs after meeting her, and now they’re eating fried shrimp at Sonic. And. He’s. Hard. Who gets hard at Sonic? Who eats there in the first place, when there’re so many healthy alternatives?

He must be seventeen. He’s a seventeen-year-old SEAL, that’s the explanation. No, wait, it’s mentioned in the beginning. There it is. He’s thirty-six.

And I’m turning thirty-three tomorrow.

I know—I feel it in my very bones—that I’m losing a crucial battle between a man’s rational mind and his teenage demons, but I can’t help peering over the tablet and at my legs as they rest on the bed covers. Alright, what I’m staring at is my crotch, faintly outlined in the dark by the device’s dim glow—and more specifically, the part of me that sits safely tucked in a pair of well-ironed boxer shorts.

This is ridiculous. Of course, no flag stays at full mast for an entire night. It’s basic physiology, and I have nothing to worry about: that SEAL quite simply suffers from a severe case of priapism, which should logically degenerate into penile gangrene by the end of this story. Note to self: never Google that again. In any case, that persisting state of arousal will be Kayden Storm’s downfall—if he doesn’t get killed in action first.

My eyebrows slowly rise to meet my hairline as our hero pulls out a Smith & Wesson Sigma on page 217. That boy is going to die: the trigger design is dreadful, and they didn’t nickname that one the “Smegma” for nothing. Oh no. He’s certainly not taking out an ambushed sniper with a Sigma. He can’t possibly—Fok me, he just did.

Who wrote this? Have they ever killed anyone? Nevermind, he saved Chanterelle and killed that corrupt FBI agent after all. Oh, for the love of Conway Twitty, he’s hard again. Oh well, I suppose that a fellow male can relate to the feeling of battling untimely and inappropriate urges, and I’ll concede that the author is doing a fine job describing that particular brand of frustration. Yes, it is not unlike a pressure cooker full of pork tenderloin on the verge of exploding. Not quite sure about the tenderloin, or why it has to be pork. It could be anything, really. Or just water. That’s how pressure cookers work.

But the ache is nonetheless real.

I set the tablet aside on my nightstand with a weary sigh, but not before making sure it lies parallel to the edge of the tabletop. Odd angles tend to make my skin crawl. It’s almost three a.m. I know Kayden is going to sleep with Chanterelle, and I’m alone in bed, reading about it, on the twenty-fifth floor of a hotel in Moscow. I have no penchant for the dramatic, but I fear this is very close to rock bottom. I run a hand across my face, hating the sandpaper-like feeling of newly-grown stubble on my chin. I need to shave. I hate being unshaven. It feels messy, as if a part of me were out of control . . . dirty.

The very idea raises my hackles and coils my insides, so I jump out of bed. I like to shave, even at night. It’s like trimming my nails or cleaning my guns: it helps me sleep. It dulls the unbearable pins and needles sensation that starts in my knuckles and spreads through my whole body until I wish I could rip my skin off. So, I make my way to the bathroom and brace my hands on the edge of the sink, avoiding my reflection in the mirror. I know that man well enough, his anxious blue eyes, and the many weaknesses he tries to hide under a gentleman’s mask. I don’t like him much, but we’re stuck together, so I try to make the most of the time we have, the body we share.

There’s the soap, sitting in its wooden bowl—always clear of any dried suds; dried suds make me physically ill—then the comforting glint of my chrome safety razor, the practiced glide of its sharp blade. Every slow scrape, every inch of clean-shaven skin settles my pulse and dulls the restless prickling in my hands and chest until I’m clean.

The result in itself brings me no genuine pleasure: I never indulge in more than a quick swipe of my palm over my chin to ascertain that the skin there is perfectly shaved. It’s the process that matters; I know that. I understand the method to my madness, even though I’m powerless to stop the urge when my knuckles start tingling again. This time it’s the soap, covered in suds. It’s the sickening sight of tainted foam and stubble shavings marring the sink’s smooth porcelain. Water stains on the faucet, on the backsplash, infuriating traces of lint gathering on the glossy surfaces I just wiped over and over.

According to my watch, it’s another seventeen minutes before I’m able to leave the bathroom, but not without a lingering sense of nausea.

When I return to bed, I feel clean at last—or at least for now. I check under the pillow for my gun. Still here. Good. The sheets are cool and crisp; I like that. I rarely indulge in a full night’s sleep. Instead, I doze, close my eyes, and allow my body to relax for three, sometimes even four hours. The bare minimum I need to stay sane. I don’t expect to dream tonight. I never dream when I’m working: I don’t allow myself to drift far and deep and enough for that. Yet, the moment the room goes entirely black under my eyelids, I pick up a faint scent of vanilla. A light and sweet effluve that compels me to savor each slow breath.

There’s silky skin under my fingertips, pale as milk and studded with moles, like dots on a map or stars in the sky. Uneven surfaces often drive me insane, but not this time. I want to linger on each freckle, chart every landmark of this lovely chaos. I run my fingers in her hair, combing soft, rebellious curls. She’s in my arms, her body molded against mine. She fits there, small enough for me to cradle. Warm and infinitely soft. So pure I’m afraid a single touch from me will stain her, leave a visible smear. Her full lips seek mine. Clumsy, hungry. Desperate to hold on to my fantasy, I grip the sheets in vain and shift my hips to relieve an all-too-familiar ache. My eyelids snap open in a moment of shameful clarity, and I realize that second-rate SEAL Kayden and I have something in common after all.

But he gets the girl. I don’t. I left her in a bed months ago, in another hotel, at the other end of the world, after she begged me to make love to her. Then again, she had no idea I need to get up at night to shave, to close doors that are already closed, to set a book straight on a shelf or dust my kitchen cupboards—because dust always sets between the plates, and just thinking about it makes my skin itch.

It’s better this way. I was drunk anyway—literally staggered into our hotel room reeking of scotch. I’m not sure what she saw in me—especially then—but she came to me, slipped out of her bed to climb into mine without a word. She huddled against me and caressed my back in that tentative way that’s uniquely hers. She brought her lips to my lion, and at the feel of her lovely mouth against my shoulder blade, the nastiest, grimiest part of me hesitated. I wanted this, her, under me, kissing me as if I were the last saint left in hell.

So I rolled over and pinned her under me. And she begged me.

Please . . . I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering—

How it would have felt?

She gazed up at me with her big golden eyes, as if we could love each other, as if I wasn’t legally drunk and mentally debating whether her blood would stain the sheets if I fucked her. And I couldn’t take what she offered. I pictured her, wincing with each thrust, waking up a few hours later, feeling sore and slightly nauseated. With dawn’s light, she’d recognize the extent of her loss and loathe us both.

I can’t think of a worse scenario for a first time. 

I couldn’t do that to her. So, I choked her out instead.

Come to think of it, that was rock bottom.

***

Two in Moscow.

One in Geneva.

And, finally, six in Palma Roja—a smatter of dilapidated houses tossed haphazardly in the northern Ecuadorian jungle, less than ten miles away from the Colombian border. Nine men in total, who came remarkably close to pulling off the heist of the decade: the hijacking of a cargo plane transporting over two-hundred million dollars in eight sealed, armored crates. Regrettably for them, the cash belonged to Angel Juan Sebastián Somoza, a well-connected arms dealer with a limited sense of humor.

Angel employs hundreds of competent guns who ensure the safety of his business and family, but when he wants to make a point—a two-hundred million dollars point—he hires me. And my work here is done: the sun is setting over the jungle, and Angel’s men are almost done digging the sixth grave.

Standing side by side near his latest toy—a heavily armored Rezvani tank SUV—he and I watch the sixth and final body bag being tossed in a shallow hole.

“Next time, you bring them to me alive,” Angel clips, the words coated in his gravelly Spanish drawl. Reflected in his aviators, one of his employees starts shoveling mud over the body.

“You know I don’t take that sort of job.”

I kill to solve problems, not to satisfy any kind of personal craving, or, in the case of a few of my colleagues, make an artistic or philosophical statement. As a consequence, I do not torture unless the necessity arises, and nothing goes in my trunk that isn’t already dead and packaged in a sanitary manner. I don’t question, I don’t abduct, and I don’t play with my clients.

I can easily imagine that Angel—who’s, in fact, the artistic type—would have wanted an opportunity to turn those six executions into gruesome and memorable visual tableaux, as a warning to future criminal masterminds intent on helping themselves to his earnings. He’ll have to hire someone else for that.

“You’ll take the job if I tell you to. Name your price.” Angel knows he’s wasting his time, but he never backs down from what he perceives to be a challenge.

Arms crossed, I study the muddy edge of the shovel as it bites into the damp, fragrant soil. Night has fallen. Angel’s men are now working under the headlights. “I’m actually considering retirement.”

That prompts Angel to lower his aviators and turn to better stare at me—a rare display of emotion for the man. Tucked in the open collar of his shirt, his gold cross pendant catches the glare of the headlights. “Have you received a sign?”

From God—or rather, Jesus. Despite his morally ambivalent career choices, Angel has always been and remains a devout catholic. As such, he firmly believes that any man willing to stop and listen may hear the Lord’s call and heed it.

“I don’t believe so,” I reply. “I’ve simply been . . . thinking.”

“Doubting,” Angel corrects. He can be irritatingly insightful at times.

“Perhaps.”

A long sigh, a slow nod. Angel Somoza is about to provide me with spiritual guidance. “He has a plan, a place for all of us. And if at times you feel you’ve lost your way, remember that this world needs monsters, too. Men like you, like me: we serve a purpose. We cleanse this world’s filth. We’re His instruments.” He places a solemn hand on my shoulder—an unexpectedly familiar gesture coming from a man who generally glares everyone at bay.

I consider his hand on my shoulder. “I’ll remember it.”

“You do that. I’ll call you.”

Angel’s employee is done. He flattens the earth over the newly-dug grave with the back of the shovel while his boss climbs in the back of the Rezvani. A concert of slamming doors and roaring engines follows, before I find myself facing the six graves alone in the dark.

My purpose . . . What, exactly, will be my purpose in this life if I’m no longer ‘cleansing’ the underworld, as Angel puts it? A low buzz rises from the inside of my jacket and cuts through my pondering. I take out my phone and glance at the nameless caller on the screen, whose profile picture is a lovely ostrich I personally selected.

“Good evening Phyllis.”

As usual, the low-pitched velvet of her voice bears a seductive quality some might misinterpret—yet, our relationship is strictly professional. Phyllis used to be the personal assistant of a casino owner in Macau until I shot him. Finding herself unemployed, Phyllis accepted my offer to work for me instead. I conducted her job interview while dissolving her former employer in acid, which says all one needs to know about her level of professionalism and sang-froid. “I gather you’re done?” she inquires.

“I am. Did you have any time to work on that side-project of mine?”

“That’s why I’m calling. Good or bad news first?”

Stifling a sigh, I jump behind the wheel of the Jeep that drove me here. I need a full night’s sleep, but that’ll have to wait until I land in New York. “Let’s hear the good news.”

“111 Central Park West is a wrap. I got a call back from the agent. The fourteenth and fifteenth floors are yours.”

“Excellent. And the bad news?”

“You might want to take a look at the file I just sent you. Call me back when you’re done.”

The file in question is a quick read. Twenty-eight-year-old American male, posing as an international health insurance contract coordinator—a cover for the CIA’s infamous Directorate of Foreign Operations. No notable achievements. No living relatives. It’s not until I scroll down to the picture Phyllis attached to the file that my knuckles start to itch. Then it’s my nape, my chest, and before I know it, my jaw is clenched so tight that I can hear my teeth grinding together. I need to either take a shower or shoot someone, now.

Because it’s her in that picture, standing in front of her building, and kissing him.

I fish inside my jacket for the tube of mints that never leaves me and pop half-a-dozen in my mouth. The satisfying crunch of sugar between my molars and the icy explosion in my sinuses seem to instantly clear my mind.

That’s it. I know exactly what I’m going to do after I retire.

The Last Supper of Simon

You may start screaming. Here’s the epilogue to the Spotless series, taking place shortly after Island Chaptal & The Ancient Aliens’ Treasure. You can start reading it below… or listen to Amy McFadden narrate it! 🙂

 

Instagram convo

Our Lego wedding was awesome—Joy gushed over my selfie with the priest—but Dad took the whole thing personally. When I called him the day after, he asked me if March had brainwashed me into doing something like that, and whether he was trying to keep us apart. Dad said it’d kill my grandparents if they learned the truth, especially my grandma, who gave March a penguin sweater with googly eyes for Christmas—how could we do this to her?

So, today isn’t my second wedding ceremony: it is, for all intents and purposes, my family’s. It’s a muggy eighty in Cape Saint Francis, and the sky is dark with the promise of a refreshing rain later tonight. The spectacular wedding buffet gram and I cooked awaits safely under several layers of cling wrap. Sitting proudly on a garden table in front of our newly rebuilt cubicle house is a complete ’70s dinner party. We’ve got mini-quiches, mini-mousses, mini-franks, and mini Jell-O lime salads: mini everything.

Jan will be our officer. He registered for a fifteen-minute, two-hundred-dollar Zoom course, and now he’s apparently a licensed marriage officer in Mozambique. This isn’t Mozambique—and, to the best of my knowledge, Andrea has none of the credentials required to preside over a secular wedding ceremony—but March and I are already married anyway. “Nothing can undo what you’ve done with those Legos,” to quote my dad—who should know better since he is, after all, Janice’s third husband.

Paulie found a gorgeous, second-hand black marble altar on Yaybay and managed to have it delivered to March’s lawn straight from New York. This exceptional piece is both our wedding gift and a cautionary tale against online shopping: had Paulie zoomed on the pics, he’d have seen the goat-guy and pentacle engraved on the front. I’ve spent hours imagining what kind of horrors that altar saw before it ended up in South Africa.

Joy helped me hot-glue plastic roses over the pentacle, so my grandma won’t see it. Our arts and crafts session was the perfect opportunity to revisit the latest earthquake in her highly seismic love life: Angel Somoza. Our 9.9 Richter scale apocalypse swept her off her feet and flew her in his goddamn private Concorde to Quito . . . where she ultimately spent less than thirty-six hours. They did not sleep together—which in itself constitutes a serious red flag—and Joy reappeared in New York with a light tan and the kind of relationship PTSD one normally acquires over the course of a decade-long marriage to a diagnosed psychopath. I won’t go over everything that went down between them, but she’s basically in a superdark place where she eats B&J’s from the carton and asks her Instagram followers whether Mr. Right exists and still awaits somewhere.

She quit her job before her boss could fire her; she wants to take some time to figure things out and maybe write a book about hot men of the shadows and the women who love them. Her fanbase ballooned overnight to almost a million IG followers after she appeared in Gualtiero Franz’s ancient aliens documentary. Her agent says she’s going to be the new Kerry-Lee Storm—but better.

•••

I’m a thousand women at once as March and I come to stand in front of Jan and Andrea—serene and terrified, a fifteen-year-old girl in a pink chiffon dress holding the hand of the young assassin who saved her life, a woman standing confidently at the side of the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with, through sun and storm. My toes curling in agony in white stilettos I should never have bought, I gaze up at March and squeeze his fingers tight. Dammit, he looks dashing in his gray three-piece suit. No tie, of course. His jaw ticks from the mint he’s secretly grinding between his molars. Seventeen guests sitting in the garden is pretty much a full stadium for him: he’s just as anxious as I am—possibly even more—but his eyes meet mine, and his dimples bracket a smile that’s just for me.

Jan straightens, clears his throat. It’s the first time I see him wear an actual pressed shirt and not a T-shirt full of holes. He even kinda brushed his ponytail. “All right, all right.” He claps his hands for all to hear. “Everyone’s here? Are we ready to begin?”

“What did he say?” croaks a quavering voice. That’s my grandpa, sitting in the front row next to my grandma in her frothy lavender dress. He insisted on bringing Remington, their white poodle—who’s patiently sitting on his lap—but he “forgot” his hearing aids at home. He doesn’t like them, but he’s ninety and, well, pretty much deaf.

“He says the ceremony is about to start,” my grandma whispers, the late afternoon breeze fluffing her cottony blow-dry.

“Is he his father?” My grandpa mumbles. We tried to introduce everyone to him, but he sometimes dozes off and loses track of conversations.

March’s smile wavers at the evocation of his father, who never replied to any of the texts March sent him.

“No, he’s a friend,” My dad explains quietly. Wrapped in a dramatic turquoise poncho dress at my dad’s side, Janice places a gentle hand on his to stop him from rapping his fingers on his knees. He readjusts his tie instead, takes a deep breath. Next to him, Joy is swooning over Kalahari and Ilan’s little boy. Kalahari raises Sam proudly to better showcase the continuous stream of drool bubbling from his mouth and trickling on his tux onesie. Joy is mesmerized by this gruesome spectacle.

March issued an invitation to Angel, but he sent his congratulations and a box of chocolate instead. In other words, he chickened out because things are simply too . . . complicated between him and Joy. Plus he’d have to socialize with my family—or worse, with Antonio, who’s sitting next to Beatriz and rocking a sleepy Isla with one hand while giving us a thumbs-up with the other. Multitasking at its finest.

There’s bright smiles, glistening gazes—my dad’s—hands clasped in anticipation of the words to come. It’s a lot. Maybe too much. I try to breathe the surge of emotion out, wrestle it under control even as I can feel my eyes threatening to water. My world rights itself when March’s hand reaches around my waist, to steady me—or perhaps to seek an anchor of his own, I realize, when his Adam’s apple rolls in his throat and he releases a trembling exhale that carries the scent of mints. I manage a grin. We’re in this together, awkward and fidgety as Jan starts reading his speech to the rhythm of Andrea’s heavy breathing—I think he’ll eat my grandparents’ poodle if we don’t keep an eye on him.

I’m thankful to Jan, who cracks a few jokes to put us at ease. He tells March he doesn’t brush up too badly, but that he looks nowhere as good as the bride-to-be. March chuckles and, to my amazement, keeps smiling even as Jan starts reading from the pages in front of him.

It was his decision. Everyone present here today will hear the secret he buried seventeen years ago. Janice and my grandparents will never know the whole truth: My dad briefed them before they landed in Port Elizabeth, but he left out the details of why March goes under an assumed name, or why he chose to resurrect a boy who supposedly died in Cape Town at the age of eighteen. I fear Janice is gonna have a lot of questions later, but for now, she seems oddly calm, sizing me up with the mysterious smile of a woman who’s been in my place before.

With Joy, it was easier: after everything we went through in September, she harbored little doubt that November wasn’t March’s real name. We went for a walk on the beach at dawn, treating our toes to the heavenly feel of wet sand. I told her his birth name, and she said, “I thought it’d be longer or weirder, like his—” I pressed a hand over her lips before the joke could slip out. She mumbled it against my palm anyway.

Mr. November legally married Miss Chaptal-Halder in Carlsbad, California, on September 25—but today, the woman standing by March’s side and listening to Jan’s speech is Miss Kovius, her father’s daughter. It is, I think, a fitting end to a story that started twelve years ago.

I was afraid my dad wouldn’t understand, that he’d be hurt; I gave him far too little credit. When we talked about it, he simply said he’d brief Janice and my grandma before the ceremony, and he begged me not to make the wedding dinner vegan. With these gruff and tender words, my Apache helicopter dad severed the final mooring line between us and let me go, free to fly away to new and mysterious horizons.

Jan is droning through a reminder of the mutual obligations of marriage when he pauses mid-sentence without warning. All heads turn in sync as a battered Toyota truck approaches the trail leading to our cubicle house. The vehicle rolls to a stop, and the driver’s door opens, revealing a jean-clad leg and scuffed black boot. I squint as the rest of the newcomer’s silhouette unfolds from the vehicle.

He’s tall and bony, wearing a worn leather jacket and a shirt printed with big orange flowers. His leathery hands and craggy blonde beard remind me of Jan, but the newcomer’s face is older, ravaged by life. The nose looks like it was broken badly, long ago. The cheeks are gaunt, sunken—probably from a few molars missing. His deep-set eyes are a familiar shade of dark blue though, and even with his shoulder-length hair, there’s just something . . .

I probably look as confused as everyone else in the garden, except March. He’s just staring at the stranger, his expression blank. The man gives a sullen nod but remains rooted in place, studying us from a distance. His sharp gaze swipes over the silent assembly, lingering on March and me.

March’s hand grips mine so tight it hurts a little. His Adam’s apple bobs, but his eyes remain dry. It’s me who blinks back tears when it dawns on me that March’s dad came after all. Despite all the anger and all the mistakes, despite the twenty years the two of them spent drifting apart after March’s mother died, a little part of him remains a dad.

I think of Dries, and my chest grows so tight I can barely breathe. I so wish he were here with us today.

“And that one, is he his dad?”

My grandpa’s loud question shatters the silence and snaps March out of his daze. With his usual clipped efficiency, he produces a tissue pack from his inner pocket and gives it to me. While I wipe my eyes and blow my nose, he strides over to his dad and motions for him to follow. Ilan and Kalahari have figured out what’s going on: Ilan gets up and jogs to the cubicle house to grab a chair from the kitchen. The chair is placed in the front, next to Janice, who smiles at this complete stranger who comes to sit at her side. There’s some more awkward shuffling as Joy gets up to take the dirty tissue from my hands and wraps it in another tissue before discreetly cramming it in her satin clutch. When our gazes meet, she worries her lower lip with her teeth. There’s a question etched in the furrow between her eyebrows. Am I okay? Yeah. I think so. I manage a trembling smile to reassure her.

Against all his rules about public demonstrations of affection, March bends to nuzzle my temple and presses a fleeting kiss there, before he clears his throat and tells Jan, “I apologize on behalf of our late guest, please go on.”

“Yeah, I think we’re good,” I murmur in my turn, a smile chasing my tears.

Jan gives a firm nod, his gaze zeroing on the checklist resting in front of him on the altar among several scattered papers. “All right. Did you prepare anything you’d like to read?”

We both shake our heads. It’s not that we have nothing to say to each other, it’s just that . . . not in public. There won’t be any lengthy vows, no song. We totally have one, but my dad would shoot up from his chair and strangle March if we played Conway Twitty’s You’ve Never Been This Far Before. So, there will be none of that, and it’s okay: all the words are in our eyes, in the nervous brush of our hands. March knows he’s my Prince Charming and that I take all the good and all the bad in one big bunch that is him. And I know, without any trace of doubt or insecurity left, that he loves me, that the spark has been there, shy, then all-consuming, ever since that Christmas party when we didn’t meet, four years ago.

The memory of that particular night invites itself in my mind, a silly scene I had almost forgotten. Grinning up at him, I lean against his arm to take off my stilettos. I sense confused, amused gazes in my back. My dad grunts in disapproval, but March remembers; he understands. As I now stand barefoot at his side, his features light up. He smiles brightly, proudly. I’m his barefoot contessa—except everything works fine for him down there, and he won’t have to shoot me at the end of the story.

“Now I’m ready,” I tell Jan, who scratches his beard with a mischievous smile at my antics.

•••

March took his dad aside after the ceremony was over, and they went to stand near the Toyota. I’m watching them, barely aware of Kalahari hugging me while Joy cracks explicit jokes about honeymoon sex.

Even from a distance, I can tell the two of them aren’t saying much. There’s nodding on both sides, long pauses during which neither speaks. There must be something left to mend; they wouldn’t be standing face to face today otherwise. Still, I wonder to what extent one can fix twenty years of hate and silence. They’re practically strangers to each other now.

The old man crosses his arms over his leather jacket and turns his head to look at me. I get that same feeling I experienced back during the ceremony, that I’m being dissected, figured out—March and his dad share the same piercing gaze, that predatory tilt of the head when they catalog a new and mysterious species. He nods again and returns his attention to his son. A few more words are exchanged before he pulls out a battered wallet and searches it for something. A small rectangular piece of paper he gives March.

I can’t make out what it is, but I don’t miss the way March’s chest heaves as he stares down at his father’s present. He slips it in his inner pocket, against his heart, and I think I know. The only material possession March is genuinely missing in his life: a picture of his mother. He doesn’t have any because he left home with only the clothes on his back, and he never returned to take any personal items. Most people I know still keep a few souvenirs from their childhood: a toy, a treasure, clothes they’ll never wear again but can’t bring themselves to throw away. The tracksuit March wore that night is long gone, and until today, I thought there was absolutely nothing tangible left of his past.

Now there is.

His father mouths something, scratches his head before climbing in the Toyota and turning on the engine. He said goodbye. They won’t hug or anything like that, but I want to believe it’s a start. I delicately free myself from Kalahari’s gentle hold on my arm, leaving the cradle of her flowery perfume to cross the lawn and join March. “Are you okay?” I ask.

His chin ducks once as he watches his father drive away. “I honestly didn’t expect . . . I don’t know what to make of it.”

“I think it’s a tiny step. A first step,” I say, stroking his arm. His muscles are a little tense underneath: I don’t know if he’s ready for a public hug. I inch closer until he relaxes a fraction and pulls me to him, rules be damned.

“Did you tell him?” I ask quietly against his chest.

“No. Do you think I should have?”

“I can’t decide that for you, but there’s still time.”

“Thirty weeks,” March replies without missing a beat. He brushes the back of his knuckles reverently against my belly and the mysterious little bean growing there. He’s installed an app to count every day, track every ultrasound and every blood test, as per the directives of his fifty-three-slide contingency plan. Everything is under control—or so he wants to believe. I, on the other hand, try my best to accept that my stomach is only going to get bigger until I look like Homer Simpson, and that I’m gonna have to pretend I know what I’m doing for the next twenty years or so.

“I’ll have to tell my dad,” I say, watching him pet little Sam with a sense of dread—I’m not sure I’m quite ready to face the roaring takeoff of a helicopter grandparent.

“I’m sure he’ll be thrilled,” March lies, rubbing the small of my back in a soothing motion.

As if on cue, my dad looks away from Sam and patrols toward us, his shoulders a little stiff—he seldom lets his guard down around March. Shifty blue eyes dart a guilty look at Janice, who’s busy showering little Sam with compliments. He clears his throat. “So, now we’re having some sort of . . . dinner, right?”

March’s lips twitch as he contains his amusement. “A small braai.”

My father’s eyelids screw shut in a silent prayer of thanks. Meat, at last: an oasis in the vegan desert that his existence has become ever since Janice forcefully converted him.

“At March’s cubicle house,” I supply giddily. I can’t wait to introduce my father to our newly rebuilt kingdom: on the ruins of his four hundred square feet brick house, March erected a seven hundred square feet palace with not one but two bedrooms. Solar panels on the roof, teak walls, one-way mirror windows, and, of course, the “basement”: a three-thousand square feet fallout shelter connected directly to the beach by an underground tunnel. And let’s not forget a cutting-edge infrared grill—the only feature my dad is interested in at the moment.

He shoots another look at Janice and whispers to March. “Whaddya got for me?”

March leans down, mimicking my father’s conspiratorial tone. “40-days dry-aged Angus and boerewors.”

Dad clasps his hands. “Christ . . . Boerewors is sausage, right?”

“Miles of it,” I drawl in his ear.

“Oh, God. Janice is going to kill me for this.”

“But what a glorious death it will be,” March purrs, suave like Satan himself.

“And our basting sauce is vegan,” I add, thus hammering the final nail in my father’s coffin as he walks away to bravely tell Janice that we’re having a traditional South-African vegan braai.

“Speaking of sauce,” I tell March. “Did he bring it?”

March gives a somber nod. “I fear so.”

You bet. Antonio promised me a forbidden hot sauce maxing out at a ludicrous ten million Scoville, and I expect him to deliver, especially since he hyped it to me with claims that one of his cousins produces it in his kitchen using pure capsaicin crystals and some guava “to round the taste.”

Beatriz chooses this moment to pop up at our sideher purple muslin dress matching that of the baby in her arms. At only eight months, little Isla already boasts a shock of black curls, and I dare say that Sam is now facing some serious competition in the drooling department. She proudly squishes a soaked teething biscuit against my cheeks when Beatriz sucks me into a group hug that smells of sugary perfume and dubious diaper.

“Look at you two!” Antonio cheers as he joins us, the tattoos all over his bronzed face and hands a stark contrast with his white tux. He flips out a tiny black bottle from his pocket. His eyes narrow ominously as he shows me its sober red label, which reads: Muerte Súbita—Sudden Death. “I have your wedding gift right here, queridita . . .”

“I don’t want this near Island,” March warns him while helping me wipe Isla’s offering off my cheek. Bless my new husband: I will never know another day without antibacterial wet wipes at hand’s reach.

Ilan rubs his hands and winks at Antonio. “You have my full attention.”

“I’ll go first,” Jan volunteers after he and Andrea are done clearing the altar.

Antonio wastes no time unsealing the bottle. As if they’d sensed that something momentous is hanging in the air, Joy and Janice pause in their discussion. On my grandpa’s lap, Remington gives a sharp bark, but Andrea ignores the poodle’s challenge. He watches his master, panting hard as Jan takes slow, measured steps towards the buffet.

He gives the chili sauce bottle a cautious sniff and stabs a mini-frank with a toothpick. Janice snorts in disapproval. Everyone else is holding their breath. I don’t even realize I’ve balled my fists tight until a few wailing strands of harmonica rise in the evening air. Joy gives a mad grin and raises her phone at me: the powerful crescendo of Ennio Morricone’s Final Duel thrums under my skin as Jan cracks his neck and pours a few drops of Muerte Súbita onto the mini-frank. The sun has started to set on the horizon, streaking the gray skies and the ocean with gold and copper.

He brings the sausage to his lips.

“No going back . . .” March murmurs as Jan’s mouth closes on the cursed appetizer.

Antonio snickers. “He doesn’t know it, but he’s dead already.”

And yet, as Jan chews thoughtfully, nothing seems to happen. He scratches his beard with two fingers, frowns. “Oh. It’s coming up. It’s starting to hit.”

Antonio’s predatory grin grows wider by the second. Ilan’s eyes narrow in keen interest as he studies what sort of hell awaits him. Joy brings a trembling hand to her mouth. Janice and Kalahari shake their heads, muttering something about the general idiocy of the Y chromosome.

Jan lets out a rasp. Then a roar. “Liewe fokken Jesus!” Sweet fucking Jesus!

Andrea launches into frenzied barking and barrels to his master’s side as he staggers across the lawn toward the beer cooler.

“You might want to drink oil instead to wash off the capsaicin,” March supplies kindly, while a crimson-faced Jan grabs two brown bottles, holds them cap-to-cap and uses one to decapsulate the other with a flick of his wrist.

Pieter, March’s longtime mechanic and braai partner, nods his assent and admiration. “Black Label sê die Bybel.” Black Label says the Bible, according to South Africans, who particularly enjoy that Canadian lager. The brand’s motto, “Champion Men deserve Champion Beer,” seems oddly appropriate as Jan collapses on our lawn with a groan of agony.

•••

Ilan and Jan both vomited on the lawn, but the braai was otherwise a success. That is, except for the part where Janice cried and told my dad she didn’t know whether their marriage could be saved after he ate a sixteen-ounce rib eye and several feet of boerewors. It only got worse when she figured out that gram’s mini quiches contained smoked ham. Joy thinks they’re gonna need counseling when they get back to New York.

I think they’ll make it through.

I smile to myself as the sun rises on Cape Saint Francis, my cheek resting on a rug of crimped silk and debauchery. And chest hair, mostly chest hair. March combs through my curls; as the back of his knuckles grazes my ear shell, I register the smooth feel of the titanium band adorning his ring finger. “You should get back to sleep, biscuit.”

I nuzzle one deliciously flat nipple. “Maybe . . . I thought I’d be more tired than that.” We didn’t get much sleep, and I regret to say that there was no savage lego sex on my second wedding night. After we were done waving everyone off and cleaning the kitchen—and the lawn—with Joy’s help, March and I pretty much collapsed in bed at two a.m. like a doddering pair of centenarians.

Warmth seeps from his skin to mine. His heart beats against my temple, calm and steady. With each muted thud, I imagine I can pick up a third pulse between us, but it’s a little early for that: our little bean is hardly bigger than a tadpole and a fairly quiet roommate, save for a recent bout of morning sickness.

I’ve been thinking about my mother more and more as the weeks pass: I lost her too young to ever discuss the all-encompassing subject of motherhood with her. Was it the same for her? The fear, the joy, and the constant peeing? The Internet has all the answers and, I’m afraid, none at all.

“A penny for your thoughts,” March drawls, his voice rich and gravelly from sleep.

“I was thinking of my mom . . . and Joy. We had a talk while we were decorating the altar.”

“Should I worry yet?” Oh, he knows me—and her—far too well.

“She said she wants to recruit an anonymous donor on Tinder and do a buddy pregnancy with me.”

I roll over just in time to see March’s eyebrow take off. “That . . . sounds like a severe case of quarter-life crisis.”

“Not yet. Okay, almost. She’ll be twenty-nine in February. It’s freaking her out because she feels like everyone is getting married, getting pregnant, and kind of moving on.”

March gathers me once more in his arms, this time spooning me and kissing my shoulder as dawn licks across the cubicle house’s lawn. “Much as I hate to twist the knife, it is my understanding that she’s already found a willing . . . donor.

I cringe at the memory of Joy’s torrid Ecuadorian stint with Angel, which ended with her calling him a psychopathic bag of triple-cream dick brie before she stomped off from his five-star palace suite and raced to the airport. She was on a flight bound to JFK mere hours later.

March sighs. “He was right about one thing: she does need to face her fear of commitment before she can possibly settle down.”

I jackknife up in outrage. “How can you take his side? He casually proposed over dessert! Who does that?”

“No,” March corrects me with a low chuckle. “If I recall well, he didn’t quite propose: he told her that they will marry.”

To be continued . . .

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