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He was a beautiful fiction

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Here's the inventory:

Three women, one Dodge Caravan [blue, fourteen years old, bought from a used car dealer in Spokane for eleven hundred dollars], two handguns, one baseball bat, seven boxes of tampons from three different brands, eleven tubes of lipstick, two green suitcases full of clothing [one is dark green, hand-stitched, a family heirloom borrowed without authorization; the other is olive, military surplus], one sawed off shotgun that's never been fired but looks like it's seen a war or two nonetheless, one diary, eight burner cellphones, a carton of Marlboro Reds, eighteen unidentified monster teeth, six yeti teeth, nine chupacabra teeth, one narwhal horn, two complete lion jaws, one ear, three noses, six fingers, two leather jackets studded with pentagrams, a grey Toshiba laptop with an underclocked Pentium II that only works on Wednesdays, a King James Bible, a Koran, the Vedas, Aleister Crowley for Dummies, a paperback edition of Lovecraft's most popular stories with the legend BULLSHIT scrawled across the front in silver sparkling sharpie, a PCMCIA 802.11a card, a nine iron, a three iron, four golf balls, a half-finished New York Times crossword puzzle [the rest of the Arts section having been artlessly discarded], a half dozen CDs [the soundtrack from Titanic, the Verdi Requiem, a couple Megadeth albums from their heyday, a mix CD marked "For Steve. I love you." in silver sparkling sharpie], a teddy bear, a machete, another golf ball [this one is painted green, and will explode if shaken too hard], an ice scraper, jumper cables, portable jack, socket wrench for changing tires, spare tire, red canister of gasoline, carton of de-icing salt, six photo albums, one floral hat, three gas masks, five substances the gas mask will protect against, two substances it won't, three pairs of good running sneakers, a chainsaw, three chewing gum wrappers, a half-empty bag of Lay's, a striped sock [trapped beneath the front passenger seat so none of the women are aware of it], a cellphone charger [voltage slightly mismatched to their phones, but not enough to matter], a framed photograph of one of the women in a white dress and a blonde man in a black tuxedo, a box of Crayola colored pencils with the blue one missing, USA Today from six days ago, Frommer's Guide to Utah, a map of Baltimore County, a Tomtom GPS with the latest updates just waiting up there in the cloud to be downloaded, a tiger claw, three cans of garbanzo beans, a diamond necklace, a high school yearbook, a vending machine gumball, another golf ball [this one is a Titleist with a small bite taken out of it], handwritten directions from downtown St. Louis to North Chicago, three switchblades [of dubious legality], a wooden crucifix and a magazine of silver bullets [even though vampires and werewolves don't actually exist], a pretzel, a silver sparkling sharpie, nine overdue library books from nine different libraries in six different states [eight non-fiction, one fiction, at least according to Dewey], another golf ball [this one glows in the dark], a putter with a bend in the shaft and some dried blood on the face, four sets of identification, and a red wool blanket.

They call their car the Blue Caravan because they don't have time for imagination. But that's enough prelude.

 

In the high dark ridges of the Upper Alleghenies, the roads still run straight, a relic of an era when men saw mountains and plowed straight through. Out west, the roads hug the mountain curves and you don't have time to brood or even think, you just keep your eyes straight ahead and watch as the mile markers pass you by. You just keep your hands on two and ten and pray you don't hit a slick. Here, you are blessed with the gift of time, of split seconds of distraction as your odometer ticks slowly toward its conclusion.

Teresa, behind the wheel, stares ahead, but her spirit floats above, restlessly looking beyond the horizon. Down to the bottom of the valley, her spirit flies, down to Pittsburgh, city of steel and glass. Down where Jamal toils in a cubicle, unaware of the gathering storm. She pictures him in her mind's eye. He wears a fine Brooks Brothers suit, or maybe it's Dior. His tie is red, or green, his shirt is white, crisp, and starched. His jacket, unbuttoned, hangs free about his waist. His hair is brown and smooth and due to be cut soon, perfect for running her hands through as she cradles his head in her lap. His eyes are brilliant like the eyes of a hawk. His skin is dark brown and coarse and thrillingly rough to the touch.

He is busy, laying out his business proposal at a client meeting or hammering out some obscure analytical point in an Excel spreadsheet. He almost forgets to eat his lunch, which has been takeout every day since she went out on the road and stopped making his lunches. He almost forgets that he is lonely. But he doesn't. In the back of his mind Teresa is always there. He is waiting for her.

"You're not all here, are you?" Joy asks her from the reclining front passenger's seat. Teresa starts, but keeps her hands on the wheel steady, and the car continues to make its way down the highway as her spirit returns to her body. Joy is looking at her with an almost smile. Teresa feels that Joy has seen something telling in her body language. Somehow, her body has betrayed her.

Her light skin blushes deep red, and she decides to confess. "No, I was thinking about J. We're so close to town. I'll be seeing him soon, once we take care of business. We haven't been back to Pittsburgh in more than a year. I was thinking about what our reunion will be like. I was wondering what he'll think of me. You know, the way I've changed. Hey, there's the forty miles to Pittsburgh sign. We're making good time. I've put on ten pounds in the past year."

"Solid muscle," Celia grunts from the back.

"Yes, and I know I'm still attractive. I don't need to be reassured on that score. I don't need you to promise he'll still love me. We're soul mates until the end of time. But it'll still be different. He's still a civilian. And... I'm not."

"You can't worry about that until after we take care of business." They are a chatty trio, and they have been gossiping and debating and arguing across the country, but they don't talk the way they used to. They no longer spell out the details of a mission, only elliptically mention all of the "business" they're going to "take care of," as if they are afraid someone who isn't supposed to know might eavesdrop on the conversation. Or maybe they are afraid they will realize exactly what it is they're doing, Teresa supposes. It's not the only code phrase that has entered their vernacular. "Hardware" now means any of the multiple implements they carry around for the sole purpose of killing, or any such instruments they are contemplating adding to their arsenal. "Refueling" does double duty as they put gasoline in their caravan and comestibles in their bodies, often at the same rest stops. "Friends" at first stopped meaning anything, then it started to mean the authorities, as in, "I think our friends have almost caught up to us." It was very briefly an ironic "our friends in blue," until Joy realized that that was also what the police called them.

Teresa believes the reason for the codes is that it's the only language play allowed to them. They have to treat all metaphors literally. When someone tells Celia that 'his eyes lit up', she assumes it's another demonic possession case. She gives Sister Nancy a call, digs up the crucifix that's buried under the blanket in the back compartment, whispers a quiet prayer to whichever God she's on best terms with this week, and only then does she entertain the possibility that her interlocutor was speaking figuratively. Joy and Teresa are a little better at dealing with idiom, but only a little.

There are also codes that two of them use to keep information from the third, in the tight intimacy of spending your every living moment with two other women. Teresa still hasn't figured out what "going golfing" means.

Somehow it's thirty five miles, and then thirty, and then twenty five. Then Celia looks up from her book and starts a debate about Lucrezia Borgia and her impact on Renaissance humanism, for no other reason than that she knows she'll win the argument. Joy gives Teresa a tired eyeroll, but she talks Great Man theory anyway as it's twenty miles, and then fifteen, and then ten. Then the Blue Caravan clears a ridge and they can see Pittsburgh down below, its luminescent skyline twinkling beneath the yellow moon. Teresa smiles, and her spirit floats down once more. Business be damned.

 

They are standing outside the back door of a former steel mill, closed more than thirty years. Teresa is holding her nine millimeter and Celia is holding a machete and Joy is holding their sawed off shotgun, because it's never been fired yet and probably won't be this time. Joy is the worst shot of the trio.

"I've got your back," she tells Celia, like she always does.

"That's the problem." Celia grabs her by the arm and pushes her to the front. Joy moves willingly, deferring to the older woman. "I don't want you pointing no shotgun at my back."

Teresa ignores them and kicks the door down. They move inside without saying another word. The mill is empty, vast, and forlorn. It is a desecrated monument to an industrial past, with its vats taller than some oil derricks and rusted and corroded clear through. They look, Joy thinks, like a mad cross between Baroque architectural relief and the work of Donald Judd. She has grown accustomed to such unmannered beauty.

The first time they took care of business, Celia had watched over them the whole time, barking instructions like a matronly drill sergeant. "You, fat one, mark the pentagram on the floor with this pencil. No, bigger... bigger... Yes, that size. Beanpole, stand guard and shoot anyone who enters the room. Yes, I said shoot first and ask questions later. Trust me, nobody who comes in to this room now is out to do you any favors... What, innocent bystanders? There are no bystanders, Beanpole! This is a motherfucking war. Quick, Lucy, get the laudanum. Right now, I said! We mustn't waste any time."

Now Joy, still the fat one, just says, barely above a whisper, "Let's get this over with."

It's the three of them in an empty steel mill facing down a mad sorcerer and a monstrous feline, taking care of business. The cat is the first thing Joy focuses on, because she trusts Teresa to take care of the sorcerer. She takes it all in, her senses narrowing so that the yawning silence of the massive room fades away and all she can hear are the cat's vicious mewls and her own rapidly calming breathing. Her eyes carefully examine the beast's six inch claws, curving away from its human-sized paws. She calculates in her head the pathways her body will need to travel to avoid their deadly trajectories. She reminds herself of the possibilities of acid spitting, of some sort of (darkly comic, though not in the moment) hairball launching power, even of fire breath. There's a predictability in the unpredictability of their work, Celia likes to say. Joy has found it to be true, though she would never validate one of Celia's gasbag proverbs by admitting it.

Then she leaps, catlike herself for an instant, springing off a forklift with an explosive kick and launching herself toward the cat. It hisses and poises to defend itself, its razor foreclaws slashing out randomly. She drops her shotgun to the ground mid-air and draws her own razor-sharp blade. In the back of her head, mostly unnoticed, she registers hearing bullets exchanged between Teresa and the sorcerer. In the back of her head, she knows Celia is loudly chanting something in Old High Romanian by now, but she can't even dimly hear it.

When she lands, she lets her momentum slam her elbow into the cat's shoulder, throwing it back several feet as a disgruntled purr emerges from somewhere that is definitely not the cat's mouth. Joy looks more closely and notices a second set of teeth on its underbelly. Part of her is relieved that at least this time, it's not acid spitting. Then the cat rears up on its hindlegs and rakes her with a claw. Her body processes the pain and the wet, slick feeling of her own blood and the luxurious plushness of the cat's fur in an order that she can't quite make sense of. Before she can finish assimilating these new stimuli, she has begun her counterattack, jabbing her blade between the cat's ribs. The beast howls in pain. A phrase in Old High Romanian slips into her head, which she knows Celia must have just chanted, but she still hasn't heard it consciously. She can't feel her own pain in any meaningful way yet. It's an abstraction, a feeling that she lets her adrenaline handle and throws off into a file to deal with later. She knows she has to finish this fast before her nerves can object.

She follows up her stab with a kick to the jaw. The real one, not the uncanny alter-jaw that is chattering its teeth expectantly from below, waiting for its meal. A spray of bulletfire rings out somewhere to the side, probably directed at the sorcerer. It seems to startle the cat for a second, or maybe it's her kick that does that, but either way she has another opening and she takes it. One practiced slice, this close in, and she's severed the cat's main artery in its throat. The blood is all over her body after that. The blood and the pain, and finally her mind loses focus and she can hear all the sounds of the room again, the bullets Teresa is trading with the Mad Mandrake, the ancient spells Celia is casting with her incantations, the still-yawning silence of the vast, empty mill that endures despite all the noises they are filling the cavernous room with. She guides the wounded demon cat's body to the ground so that the massive creature won't fall on top of her. It sprawls motionless on the ground, except for the still constant chattering of its second mouth, waiting for a meal that will now never come. Joy collapses to the ground alongside her bested foe.

This is how Teresa and Celia find her, moments or minutes later, after Mandrake has been consumed in a fiery eruption of spellmastery. They dress her wounds on the empty shop floor, and neither of them says a word as Joy deliriously calls out for Steve. The same rags and bandages that can blot away blood serve just as well for blotting away tears. Celia finds a canister of gasoline in the back of the Blue Caravan and douses the hellcat with it, then lights it on fire. The trio re-enters the car and they drive away. It's Celia's turn to drive.

Afterward, Joy never remembers exactly how business got taken care of. Somehow, her memories are garbled and confused, even two minutes after the fight ends and the forces of evil are staved off for another day. She always has to ask Teresa or Celia if she needs to know the details. Usually, she doesn't bother. Her garbled memories are enough of a burden.

 

They hole up in a dirt motel on the North Side afterward to regroup, tend to wounds, and figure out what their next move will be. As soon as she's sure that Joy will recover, Teresa catches a bus down to Oakland, leaving Celia essentially alone: Joy won't be herself again until they're back on the road. Celia grabs a blue, full-sized notebook from her bag and sets it out on their motel room desk. She lights a cigarette and takes a drag of it before deciding she ought to open the window.

"We battled M again today," she begins to write. The ink flows in curves that look like they belong in the nineteenth century. "We may have beaten him for good this time. T used silver bullets just in case, and J definitely killed his familiar. I used some spells in OHR from a book we found just outside Denver. I don't think I recorded that trip, so I will write about it here.

"We were heading east from Sacramento toward St. Louis. We stopped for refueling in this town that was little more than a strip of houses and a gaseteria, but one of the houses had been converted into a bookstore, and Joy and I couldn't resist taking a peek. The house itself was nothing to speak of. It was just some early '70s suburban monstrosity, with the original yellowish-grey paint untouched. I don't think I've ever seen an uglier bookstore. We entered and found ourselves in a wide central hallway covered with cheerful, colorful signs that looked like they had been drawn by a five year old, pointing us to such rooms as the Artificial Intelligence Bildungsromans room and the First Editions of Tawdry True Crime Novels room. We waded through a couple of these bizarrely curated rooms before we made our way to the back room: General Non-Fiction. That's where I found a couple of Slavic spellbooks, or really, Joy found them and I authenticated them. Who knows how they ended up at the world's ugliest bookstore? All I know is that I was grateful to have them in my pocket in our fight against M. He seemed unprepared for such an obscure casting.

"M was even more dashing and handsome than usual today. He was using a new mustache wax, I think. It made his mustache catch glimmers of light with a truly excellent malevolence. I think he also had a new cape. It was red with a purple fringing, and I think it was silk, from the way it rippled behind him in the breeze. It seemed to bring out the killer in T. She was blasting at him as soon as she saw the cape, like a bull chasing a matador. I'm not sure if that's what M wanted. Maybe he wanted it to be a one on one fight against me, like the old days. There was a part of me that wished for that.

"T is off visiting J now, since we're back in Pittsburgh for the first time in a while. It has me thinking back to when I first met M, before he even had the mustache. I never would have thought that I would still be thinking about him all these years later. He was cute, but he was kind of forgettable. Quiet, I mean, and unassertive. I didn't even really notice him until the third mathematics course we took together. That's when we were partnered on the N-dimensional manifolds project. He suggested adding in some theories on black holes that, in retrospect, he probably borrowed from a forbidden grimoire, but I was blown off my knees by the insight. So was the professor.

"Twenty five years on the road. Funnily enough, today was actually our twenty fifth anniversary of sorts. The twenty fifth anniversary of the first time I fired a gun at him. I didn't say anything to the girls. I haven't really told them anything about the old days. I don't think they know that I knew M before he was Mad Mandrake, though I think T might have some suspicions. She looks at me sharply sometimes when I'm studying the old grimoires. I'm hoping he's really dead this time, obviously, and yet part of me is feeling really lost inside. This was the longest, most stable relationship I've ever had with a man, and I may have just destroyed it. Well, there's not much I can do about it now, and J is stirring, so I think I'll go see how she's doing. I'll write more later, I promise."

She stubs our her cigarette in the ashtray on the desk and closes her notebook.