Chapter 1: run out by two women
Constance learns how to become a proper thief.
Constance wasn’t drunk.
This wasn’t a good thing. When she was drunk, her fury became a distant drum, something she could dance to without wanting to scream or commit arson. It softened and drowned, slick and squishy and hard to hold. But tonight, what alcohol she’d had only became engine fuel in her bones.
Katy was drunk, though. It was a bad combination. It meant that when Katy came up with a stupid, selfish way to strike at the world as if the whole of it had hurt them, Constance was actually sober enough to act on it. Oh, they’d come up with plenty of those before—they’d like to burn down the city, rob the upper classes blind, truss up the arms dealers and leave them in the gutters as prey for feral orphans. All they had accomplished so far were two broken windows and a pitiful bonfire.
But Constance was sober, and she was furious. So when Katy pointed to an old woman in a spangly dress, she thought that Katy was right, it would be a brilliant idea to pick her pockets. She looked like just the very worst of privileged society, didn’t she? That Katy’s mom had been threatened with divorce, that these older women with their shiny dresses and desperate faces were so often the victims, didn’t cross Constance’s mind. Her insides were on fire, and everyone was a monster to her.
The woman had a purse on her arm. Eyes on the clasp, Constance followed her at a distance down the low twilit street. When the woman sidled into an alleyway, Constance thought, this is perfect. She had, after all, had some drink.
Flat against the wall, surely unseen, Constance reached for the purse. She had pushed open the clasp and laid hold upon some bit of jewelry within, when someone caught her wrist.
She looked up at another woman, just as old, but dressed in plain and forgettable clothes. Seeing the bruised-eye face of a teen girl, who cared so little that her expression did not even change with surprise, the woman laughed.
“Were you planning to rob me, darling?” the first woman said. She pulled her purse away from Constance. “You followed me for three blocks. I began to wonder if you were really going to do it.”
Constance stayed silent. Over years, she had sharpened her glare into a knife, and she held it against the woman holding her.
That woman’s expression changed. The laughter went away, replaced by curious familiarity.
“I know that face,” she said, letting Constance go. “That was my face at eighteen.”
“You don’t know anything about me.” Constance couldn’t help saying it. It slipped from her mouth like smoke, snapping and childish.
“Hm. I suppose I don’t. But I do know a good deal about theft.”
The first woman looked between them, and then smiled. It was a sharp, charming thing. Constance liked it. She wanted to smile like that, like a hidden blade.
“Don’t forget burglary, smuggling, arson, and sedition,” the first woman said. “We’ve done it all, darling.”
The second woman had not looked away from Constance’s unchanging, angry face. “Would you like a small lesson, before you go?”
Constance wasn’t really listening. She was thinking of Katy, waiting for her. She was thinking of getting to the graveyard before morning, of what drink she might be able to steal from Aunt Jackie to take with her. She was thinking of tomorrow night, of more shots, cigarettes, blurred faces and drowned anger. She drank it to death every night, but it always came back stronger.
Something tickled her shoulder. She brushed it off.
“It’s getting light,” the first woman said to the second. “We need to go soon.”
“I know. Listen,” to Constance, “following people and grabbing purses will take you nowhere in life. Do you want to know the best way to pick somebody’s pocket?”
Constance nodded absently and scratched her elbow.
“Tell them a story. Make them the hero. Make yourself what they expect to see. A proper thief is a storyteller first.”
The stolen jewelry in Constance’s fist tugged away. She opened her hand in surprise, and something small and furry jumped from her wrist onto the woman’s shoulder. It was a little mouse, blinking at her with wide, dark eyes. He held the bracelet in his paws.
The first woman was already at the mouth of the alleyway, looking around. Sunlight had started to paint the street. “A proper thief,” she said, without turning round, “is a lady.”
A sea bird flew over their heads and gave a loud cry. Constance jumped.
The first woman said, “We’re clear to go. It was a pleasure meeting you, darling.” She squeezed Constance’s hand quickly. “Get yourself into trouble.”
As they walked away, she heard the second woman say, “I do so envy the younger generation.”
Constance was left alone in the alley, holding the bit of money that the woman had pressed into her hand. It was just enough to buy her and Katy a ride home.
The women burned into the bottom of Constance’s mind. They fell away behind a haze of long late nights and loud parties and shitty alcohol. But they were always there. And who was this angry rebel girl, besides a story that she told herself?
So Constance knew what to do when that girl burned out. She told herself a new story. She would become what they expected to see. She would be a lady. A storyteller.
A proper thief.
Chapter 2: Elysium, Elysium
No song in the universe makes me angrier than Connor's Reprise, so I fixed it.
When Lee opens his eyes, he’s still in Elysium.
His first thought is, no. After everything, after two decades, after Adrian—Rachael—they fought, he—she—was going to save them, everyone, after what Lee had done, after what happened because of his stupid fucking lie. He was going to go home and finally say sorry to Dad, and have dinner with him, for the first time in twenty fucking hellish years. Whatever it took. As an AI, if that was the price. Just, please, god, get him the hell out of here. Let him paint again.
But there’s the empty sky above him. It still looks like it’s on fire. Red, like rage. He can see the creatures, their wings, their thousand burning eyes, but it’s strangely like looking through a haze.
His first thought is, no. But his second thought is, who’s that singing?
‘Yearning and forgotten dreams are nursery rhymes the quiet sing…’
He’s lying down, and there’s someone holding him, someone singing. Lee doesn’t know much more. It’s hard to tell where his body is. It’s hard to remember who he is. He can still see Rachael, there, the creatures are talking to her—but, no, that’s Adrian, right there, he’s there and it’s Adrian but it’s not, and it’s not Rachael either, it’s a girl he doesn’t recognise, but she’s also another girl, but she’s talking with Adrian’s voice. But he can’t understand her. He can understand the creatures, but not her.
‘The child who climbs the edge of time…’
Lee tries to move, but he doesn’t know where his body begins. The someone holding him squeezes his shoulder gently.
‘Breathe,’ they say. ‘Take a deep breath, and let it go. You’ll feel better.’
They go back to the song. Lee thinks he remembers it, though he’s never heard it before…
It takes all his focus to draw in one long breath. It feels like choking on paint, on yellow and red and purple and all that blue, tubes and jars and oceans of blue. He feels it corroding his lungs…and then he breathes out, and watches the air disperse like candlelight, soft and gold, until it fades into a warm grey sky.
When he moves now, it feels like floating. It feels right, familiar, not to be held by a body. The person who’s been singing to him, they don’t have any distinct features, except for the cracks that seem to run through them like lead. Still, there’s something warm about them, something that reminds him of his dad without being quite the same.
‘Why am I still here?’
His voice doesn’t move through the air quite right—at least, not in the way he expected. It flickers and glows, but after a moment he realises, that does feel right.
‘You figured it out. Just in time, too. Couldn’t have really cut it any closer.’
Lee feels the pain burn again inside him. The pain of—dying. It had happened so fast. Just moments ago. A thousand years ago.
They nod at the creatures. ‘Only those who go sane. Like they say. You’ll start to remember, with time.’ They reach out, and Lee can’t tell if they’ve actually touched him or not, but he feels comfort as a real weight on his shoulders. ‘It gets better, with time.’
‘I was going to go home. I was going to see my dad…’
That weight of comfort envelops him. Whoever it is here with him, he doesn’t know, but their hug reminds him so much of when he was still little enough that his dad could pick him up in one swoop and spin him around. He holds on, and it gets harder to tell what’s a part of him and what’s not.
‘I stayed,’ he says, and he’s crying, but the tears turn to light in the air and melt away. ‘I stayed with her. I could’ve left. I could’ve gone home, they didn’t need me to keep it open. She wasn’t Adrian. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t leave her there alone.’
‘Thank you,’ they say, more than once, over and over again, ‘thank you, thank you for staying with her, thank you for standing by my daughter…you’re safe now…’
They begin to sing again. A different song, one Lee doesn’t know, but something about it reminds him of stormy nights, when he was still scared of lightning, and would run to his dad’s room, and his dad would sing him back to sleep.
‘Past the world, past the night, past the stars where sea birds fly…past your dreams to toyland’s shore…’
And somehow—somehow, Lee knows the last words, knows them like he knows how to hold a paintbrush, and he sings them too.
‘…where we will meet again once more.’
Chapter 3: the hours stop, the days unwind
The thing about time is that we measure it in circles. The best of times pass—until they come around again. Something something something, the cyclical nature of New Albion.
Of course Jackie didn't leave her there.
Along the way this also, somehow, accumulated a framework narrative about Constance and Thomas and dealing with grief.
He found her in the graveyard, as he’d known he would. Even so, he’d come here slowly, hoping he might find her anywhere else along the way. The people buried here held a part of Constance’s heart that he could not go near. There she was, sitting with flowers on her lap among three headstones, and he felt responsible, somehow, for all of them.
They didn’t talk about it. Since escaping Crier’s Boulevard, they had never spoken of that night of spirits and fire. So Thomas wished he had found her anywhere else, because as he knelt down beside her, he didn’t know what to say in the face of those grey stones and two unweathered epitaphs.
Father, brother. Sister, aunt.
Constance picked at the flowers; there was a ring of shredded petals around her feet. She had never come here like this, in her right mind, she supposed. Maybe that was why it felt strange. Maybe it was because, after coming so close to the dead in that way she still couldn’t describe, it felt odd to hear no music from them. Or maybe it was because she knew Aunt Jackie wasn’t coming to wrap her in a blanket, and that fact hurt.
She didn’t acknowledge Thomas when he knelt beside her, but her hands stopped fidgeting. They didn’t talk about it. That night of songs and loss. They’d gone to ground in a little flat, and there they stayed, sheltering each other from a broken city, sheltering their grief from one another. She didn’t know how to talk about it.
Constance held the flowers up to him. ‘What am I supposed to do with these?’
Thomas hesitated, unsure what the question meant. ‘Well...I don’t know.’
“They’re already dying.” She plucked off a dry leaf. “It’s such a weird tradition. What are they going to do with them?”
“You told me once that you lit candles for your mother.” He couldn’t help saying it quietly; he didn’t feel allowed to mention her.
“I forgot I told you that.” She was surprised that he remembered; as Inanna, she couldn’t have mentioned that more than once. Still, she shrugged. “The shrine got smashed in the fighting, so.”
Thomas was quiet a moment.
“We could bring some candles home and light them there.”
Constance looked at him. He was relieved to see her face. Though she wasn’t happy, he could read from it that what he was doing wasn’t wrong.
“Dad would like that.”
A smile hinted at the corners of her mouth. Then she glanced at one of the stones, as if hoping she might see the woman whose name was on it.
“I don’t know if Aunt Jackie would. Hell, I don’t even know if she’d want to be buried like this. She didn’t like tradition.”
Constance tore off a handful of petals and scattered them to the wind. They drifted, white slashes on the air, over Jacqueline’s grave.
“I don't know what Voodoopunks do with their dead besides dance with them.”
Thomas touched her hand tentatively, prepared to draw back if she did. Instead, Constance turned her wrist so that their palms pressed together. She sighed, pushed back the hair that hung over her face, and looked at him with tired eyes. They were both stepping gently around twin shelters of grief.
“What did she say to you, that night, after I left?”
It took Constance a long breath to summon up the question. Thomas’ eyebrows came together. She knew that furrow of confusion achingly well. Ever since that night, the most familiar things about him had become painful.
“It was a long time before the two of you came to the surface,” she explained. “There was something different about you when you did.”
“Well, you know.” Thomas attempted a grin. “Possession changes a man.”
Constance thought of the men who had come back to consciousness with her own song on their lips and, even still, aimed their guns at her. She raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. “Hardly.”
Thomas laughed reflexively at being caught out. His eyes turned to the petals, the stone, the clear chiseled lines of her name. He was so aware of Constance’s hand against his. He wanted to twine their fingers together, to make sure she wouldn’t leave, but it wasn’t his right.
“She told me what happened to her during the purges. She told me about Dorothy.”
He stopped. He did not deserve to say that name. The silence stretched on, long and brittle, as he stayed still and staring.
Constance squeezed his hand.
That pressure brought him back to himself, and to her, at his side. She was watching him with a sort of intensity, a burning in the eyes she’d fixed on him. Whether he was worthy or not, she deserved to know. Each word came together slowly. It was hard to fit them around what exactly had happened in him.
“After the riots, the police took her away, and they—they broke her. I didn’t understand how they could do something like that. Until I realized I’d done it. Maybe not directly to her or Jacqueline, but I was working for the people who had done that to them. I made things like that happen. I broke things as beautiful as what they had.”
Three graves surrounded him like judgement, and a hundred more bodies beside. How was he supposed to grieve, when he was the cause of so much grief? There was no mourning the boy he had been.
Constance’s palm was still pressed to his. The rest of the graveyard was cold, but that space between them was warm.
“I realized that if I turned you in, they’d do the same thing to you. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Constance could see how it cut him to speak. She didn’t know if she really wanted to hear any of this. Even so, she listened. They had to start somewhere.
The quiet told her that it was her turn to speak, but she didn’t know what to say. Was she supposed to forgive him? She didn’t think she had the right to do that, and she didn’t want to yet. She held her hand against his, and listened, and lived in a flat beside him, but there were parts of her heart that she wasn’t ready to give back to him. Or was she supposed to take solace in the memory of Aunt Jackie’s trauma? Is that what she had wanted to hear, was that supposed to make the missing-her easier?
Constance ripped up another handful of petals. How was she supposed to explain that she felt sixteen again, and that it terrified her? How could she even put to words the loneliness, grief, and fear that circled like hungry wolves in her heart?
At last, Constance said, “She never even told me about Dorothy.”
There was no bitterness. She spoke warmly, remembering.
“She lived with us when I was a teenager. I didn’t know very much about her, except that Aunt Jackie loved her. She never said so, but I could tell.”
This wasn’t quite how Voodoopunks did it, Constance thought. Calling back the dead. It was all she had, though, so she hoped Aunt Jackie would appreciate it anyway.
“I guess it shows just how much she loved her, that even I could see it. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything except myself for a long time there. But Dorothy was nice to me anyway. I’d get home at fuck-off early in the morning, and she’d already be in her chair by the fire, the nicest one, and she’d smile at me. Every time she saw me. I don’t even know when Aunt Jackie brought her home—she never said anything about Dorothy or what had happened to her. I just woke up one day and she was there, in that spot by the fire, as if she’d always been there. And Aunt Jackie was beside her, as if she’d always been there too, perched on the arm of the chair, watching her knit. Dorothy liked knitting. She liked to play with Aunt Jackie’s hair, too.”
Constance grinned, remembering her aunt, tough as nails, curled up like a cat while Dorothy petted her hair.
“Aunt Jackie did everything for her. Everything she could. At least, I think she must have, because Dorothy couldn’t take very good care of herself. She was happy, most of the time, but sometimes she seemed so...lost. I ran into her once, wandering the house alone. It was almost like seeing a ghost. She looked around as if she knew this place, and yet she looked...confused, sad almost, as if it wasn’t what she remembered.”
Her eyes had been so wide, almost childlike, and yet not quite. They were somehow tired, somehow frightening. She had turned to Constance and said, in a whispery voice ill-used, “Jacqueline? Jacqueline, where am I?”
Constance had bolted, calling for her aunt. When Aunt Jackie appeared, she had approached Dorothy slowly, as if she were a frightened bird. Dorothy had looked at her blankly, and then with fear, and turned again to Constance, and started to cry.
“Your name is Dorothy,” Aunt Jackie had whispered. “This is your home. It’s safe here. I promise you, you’re safe.”
But Dorothy stood still, holding herself alone in the middle of the hall. And Jackie stood there with her, six feet away, even after Constance fled.
Constance shivered. Thomas shrugged out of his jacket, and she surprised herself by nodding when he held it out. It draped warm around her shoulders.
“I don’t think she really remembered us from one day to the next. It didn’t matter to Aunt Jackie, though. She stayed by her side, every day, anyway. She’d sit with her by the fire and read to her. She’d go out of her way to find interesting yarn for her knitting. She helped her get around the house and made her food and on really bad days she fed her…”
How did she know all this? Constance paused, taking in the memories that swirled up, one after another. She must have been paying more attention than she thought. But then, it had been hard not to watch the way Aunt Jackie cared for Dorothy. She did it quietly and steadily, but something in it drew Constance’s attention, something impossibly tender.
“Sometimes, when I got home—well, early or late, depending on how you look at it—Aunt Jackie would be helping her into bed, and I’d overhear...I’d listen, I’d just stop on the stairs and listen to the way she talked to Dorothy.”
Constance still remembered it, standing on the first floor landing in the dark, one foot balanced on the next step, stopped in place by the softness of the voice that floated to her.
“Careful on that step, Dorothy dear. It’s uneven. Always has been. Our friend Allen tripped on it once. His papers all went flying like a flock of birds. You laughed and laughed.”
Dorothy’s laughter had followed Jackie’s voice down the stairs. It wavered uncertainly, but then Jackie’s joined it, and it grew brighter.
“You have such a beautiful laugh. Oh, are you cold? I’m sorry. This house is hard to keep warm.”
A shuffle of fabric. She pictured her aunt wrapping Dorothy in her soft, heavy coat.
“It’s warmer now that you’re home, though. The house is happy to have you back. Come on, let’s get you in bed. You can pile up all those blankets. Yes, the soft ones, all of them. I keep them right there in your room for you.”
One of them had said something that Constance couldn’t hear. She pushed herself up a half-step, straining toward their warmth, toward whatever feeling glowed so softly between them that Constance thought it could fill her hollow chest, in a way that alcohol never had.
“Yes, my love.” Jackie’s voice had fallen to a whisper. It was full with a soft ache, almost desperate, almost fierce. “I’m happy to have you back, too.”
Constance blinked, and was surprised to feel tears on her lashes. She pulled her hand from Thomas’ to wipe them away, but stopped instead and let them fall. They were warm on her face.
“That’s all I know,” she said, wishing it wasn’t. Why had she never asked Aunt Jackie about the woman she loved? Why hadn’t she ever sat with Dorothy by the fire, why hadn’t she spoken to her, when Dorothy had been so kind, in her own way? Constance wanted suddenly, painfully, to ask Aunt Jackie what she loved about her, to know what Dorothy had been like, to hear the stories she’d never thought to ask for, to hear that softness in Jackie’s voice, and Dorothy’s bright laughter. She wanted to know what times had been like when they were better. She wanted to know why they stayed together, long after those times passed.
Constance pushed the flowers out of her lap. It was too late for any of that now.
Thomas’ hands hovered. He wanted to wrap his arms around Constance’s huddled shoulders, to brush back her hair and tell her it was okay, but he couldn’t, and it wasn’t.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His voice cracked; he’d started to cry. “Constance, I’m so sorry.”
It was something he should have said to her a long time ago. But he’d done so much, he didn’t know how to fit it into those simple words. He didn’t know how to even begin.
“I know.” Constance sighed. “I know, Thomas. But there are some things you can’t fix.”
She didn’t know how to talk about it. But Jackie’s memory was dancing in the air, hand-in-hand with the woman she loved, and Constance decided to start with the truth.
“I miss her.”
Constance started to cry. It felt like release. She let herself lean against Thomas for support. In the cold air, he was warm.
Softly, Thomas said, “I could tell you what she told me, about her and Dorothy. If that’s all right.”
Jacqueline, he knew, had given him a second chance. He was sure he’d spend the rest of his life working to deserve that. Being here for Constance, beside these graves, when she could not, was a very small start.
He felt Constance’s nod against his shoulder. And so, in his own quiet way, Thomas began to call forth the dead.
“The first time she saw her was in a bookstore. She said that the sight of her almost stopped her heart. After that, she started to see her everywhere…”