The Spectral Order, Chapters 1, 2, and 3

1

As the Vicious Pixies began their last song of the night, Abby prowled from one edge of the stage to the other, lost in the opening notes of an unhinged variant of “A Tisket A Tasket.” The keyboardist played a sparkly sequence of notes on a xylophone while a backup singer ran her fingers across a row of chimes in steady intervals. The drummer worked the brushes, and the bass player’s fingers strolled up and down the fretboard of his Rickenbacker in a pattern reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. The guitar player stood immobile, waiting for his moment to enter into the melody and accelerate the velocity of the song.

Abby wore a short tapered black jacket, miniskirt, and multicolored leggings. She grabbed a black top hat from a stagehand and placed it at a rakish angle over her spiked blonde hair, adding to her already beguiling mystique. She had established a magisterial presence with her coterie of fans and could trigger their emotions with relative ease. Timing her actions carefully, she guzzled the rest of her beer, threw the empty bottle into the crowd, said, “You’re very welcome,” and sang in a coquettish voice,

A tisket, a tasket
A black and yellow casket,
I wrote a letter, to my lover
but on the way I tossed it.
I tossed it, I tossed it,
On the way I tossed it,
I wrote a letter, to my lover
And on the way I lost him.

As her mind drifted through these lyrics, she thought of Nate, who had left her when she sent him a bouquet of black roses after a heated argument over her musical career, drug use, and strange obsessions. Abby’s public persona was redefining her in ways that her family and friends couldn’t understand. Life was performance art, and now she had an audience to feed her ego.

Nate hadn’t been able to handle the change. He was drawn to Abby like a moth to a flame, but the part of her he liked best was slowly but surely disappearing with her growing celebrity. Finally, he just joined the Army, went overseas, and spent several tours of duty fighting a congregation of hostile strangers thousands of miles from home, surrounded by men who understood each other.

The song grew more dissonant and aggressive with each verse, unraveling with Abby’s fraying emotions. She thought of her abusive father walking out on the family when she was seven years old, and how her mother never remarried and spent most of the rest of her life smoking, drinking, and avoiding her three children, only to die of cancer when Abby was sixteen, and how Nate looked very much like her dad—and as obvious and absurd and painful as all of this was, Abby pretended she didn’t care because at least she could still stare into the mirror in the morning and gaze at her young, beautiful face and find something gentle in her eyes when she was alone. By the final chorus, the band was blasting a deafening wall of sound, with Abby screaming,

You told me I was yours, then you took away my time,
Just another bed of lies, just another hidden shame.
You told me I was yours, then you took away my time,
Just another bed of lies, just another hidden shame.

As the band smashed out the last notes, Abby sprinted to the edge of the stage and leaped as far as she could over the crowd. She flew through the air, knowing that her fans would catch her. They would swallow her up in their arms, place her safely on the ground, and tell her how much they loved her. They always did. This is what they wanted, and it was something Abby knew she could give them, something she could manage.

2

Nate walked halfway down a narrow alley and opened a dumpster next to the back door of a pizza parlor. He pushed open the lid and stroked his beard. A near-empty bottle of McCormick vodka sat at an angle on top of the heap with its label up. He pulled it out of the garbage, finished what was left, and tossed it back. Then something wrapped in an oily rag caught his attention. He grabbed the rag and felt the contours of a Colt .45 pistol. Nate pulled the pistol from the dumpster and held it in both hands like it was a Christmas present. He checked the magazine, which was loaded with four jacketed hollow point bullets. Another round was already chambered.

The Department of Veterans Affairs had taken away Nate’s benefits a while ago. He couldn’t even get a legal supply of Ambien anymore. Sometimes, his head felt like it was shaking from side to side and bouncing up and down all at once. Most of the time, he felt betrayed by some invisible force that was always close but never fair. He rubbed his aching temples, wishing he hadn’t smoked the last of his pot that morning and wondering what he would use next to deaden the pain.

Nothing could erase the narrative of his ruined life. He had been blown off the road in a Humvee in Iraq, losing his hearing for two weeks and suffering permanent brain damage. A few years later, half of his platoon was killed in the Hindu Kush. He returned home from that deployment and broke the jaw of a drunk civilian who had said the wrong thing to him in a nightclub. And then there was the dishonorable discharge, and the constant buzzing in his ears, and now he knew the government was tracking his every move, to the point where he couldn’t even return to his post office box because someone might be monitoring it.

He squeezed the warm pistol grip and looked back down the alley. A teenager on a skateboard stared at him from the stretch of sidewalk that was visible from between the building walls. The boy had black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Nate pointed the pistol at him to see what he would do. The boy just stood there. Nate said “Fuck you,” put the pistol in his coat pocket, and watched him skate away.

A glade between the river and railroad yard seemed like as good a spot as any. He wouldn’t leave too much of a mess, and the transients who slept in the area would find him in a day or two. They would also find the 500 dollars in Nate’s wallet that he had been keeping as an emergency fund. He reached the glade an hour after sundown. After unpacking a few things from his rucksack, he built a small fire and heated up some coffee. He coughed gently and watched the vapor from his breath mingle with the smoke from the fire in the chill night air.

Soon, he heard rustling in the nearby branches. Twenty feet away, a massive figure emerged from the trees at the far side of the glade and moved straight toward Nate. He sat down cross-legged on the other side of the fire, wearing only jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt. Nate figured he was around 6’4”, 270. He had a deep scar on his left cheek that looked like it had been caused by a vicious bite.

“Cold night to be wearing nothing but a t-shirt,” Nate said.

“Well,” the man said, “that’s just temporary.”

“Whatever you say,” Nate replied. “Want some beef jerky, or a Snickers?”

“Soon enough,” the man said.

“What do you mean?” Nate asked.

“I’ll tell you what I mean. First, you’re gonna give me that jacket of yours. Then you’re gonna give me whatever food and money you got.” He looked toward the railroad tracks. “I’ll be jumping a train right over there in a little bit. It’ll be damn cold.” He pulled a folding knife from his pocket and opened it. “Now gimme that jacket.”

Nate pulled the .45 from his pocket, shot the man in the forehead, and watched the mist from his brain spray out the back of his skull like pulp from an exploding watermelon. He couldn’t believe his luck. This was definitely better than suicide. He gathered up all his supplies and threw his ruck on his back. Then he took the man’s knife and wallet, burned all the other items that might have his fingerprints on them, and headed toward the railroad yard.

He hopped on a graffiti-splattered freight train heading east. Along the way, he disassembled the pistol and tossed the pieces into various rivers and lakes at distant intervals. He cut his hair and shaved his beard with the scissors from his sewing kit, the dead man’s knife, and a mirror. The best way to hide was to appear as who he was before everything unraveled.

He jumped off in a Chicago rail yard and started hitchhiking to New York. He was on his way to the coast to find Abby.

3

Lana plucked a grilled cheese sandwich out of the pan and noticed she had burned one side. She dropped it onto a plate with the burned side down and carried it over to Mark at the kitchen table. Studying his thinning hair, she said, “Here you go, babe,” and she thought about the countless evenings he had spent prowling Serbian nightclubs for easy one-night stands.

A picture of her father hung on the wall next to the table. His short salt-and-pepper hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and gentle features betrayed the years of hunger he had suffered as a little boy. He told her just before she left, “What doesn’t happen on the surface is fine.”

Mark was about to spend three weeks in Shreveport with his construction crew, getting wasted in the clubs late at night and sending Lana garbled texts that she would respond to cautiously, figuring he would never change because he was ruled by ungovernable instincts that dictated the terms of their relationship. What Mark called issues, Lana called problems. There was a difference. Anything that couldn’t be reconciled with reason was a problem. At this point, she wasn’t even sure if she wanted to be an American citizen anymore. She just wanted him to eat his grilled cheese and leave so she could make the best of the situation.

“You’ll be good, right?” he asked.

“I promise, baby,” she said. “You’re my man.”

Once he was finally gone, she gazed out the window for a few minutes and watched the tide come in. Then she pulled a marijuana gummy bear from the pocket of her workout shorts and wiggled it gently between her index finger and thumb. Her body heat had made it warm and spongy. She popped it into her mouth, then poured herself a vodka press and took a few sips, keeping the gummy bear stowed safely under her tongue the whole time.

If she was going to be a human ornament, then she would do it on her own terms. She headed downstairs to the exercise room to stretch and lift weights, wondering who would hold her in his arms in the next few days. The range of possibilities made her quiver. She had to think about what she would tell him.