The Spectral Order, Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4

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

Abby had been earning her own way since her sophomore year in high school. By the time she was 21 and her lease on a $300-a-month hotel room apartment was up, she and her friend Olivia decided to look for a place to rent together. They had plenty in common. They were best friends, they worked together in the same local deli, they would try just about anything once, and they were both broke.

On the last Friday night of the month, they decided to go to a party being thrown by their skater friends in a big Victorian house that was split right down the middle by one massive wall. No one seemed to know much about the history of the home. At that point, it had degenerated into a run-down party spot, a crash house. There were always at least five different people living there, mostly guys, but couples would crash on one side of the wall now and then. Everyone in this tight little community lived to skate. Most of them had tattoos, and they loved punk rock, the Beastie Boys, Black Sabbath, and so on. They even threw small concerts in the back yard every few months. The house always smelled of cigarette smoke, pot smoke, and beer, but Abby and Olivia didn’t care because they thought the skaters were more creative, fun, and intelligent than most of the other guys they knew.

As the night progressed, the girls learned that the owners of the Victorian had decided to sell the place, which meant that everyone would be moving out in a few days. The owners lived in another state, and given that the house was in a mildly distressed condition, it probably wouldn’t sell too soon. Abby and Olivia desperately needed somewhere to live, and they had no money for a deposit, much less first and last month’s rent, so it just made sense to them to go ahead and move in there. Sure, what they were about to do would be illegal, but it seemed like a low-risk / high-reward plan, and there was no point in letting the house sit empty for any extended period of time when people could make good use of it.

On the second day of the following month, they broke open a window in the back yard and crawled into the basement. After cleaning themselves up a little bit, they unlocked all the doors and called a locksmith to come and change the locks. One arrived within hours and changed the locks immediately when Abby and Olivia told him they didn’t want to be hassled by dangerous ex-boyfriends under any circumstances. Then they called the utilities department to turn on the water and electricity. A utilities worker came over and wondered why the main line had a lock box on it. He promptly dismantled the lock box, turned on the juice, and left.

Now that Abby and Olivia were safely ensconced in the house for at least a little while, they began fixing it up. It was a turn-of-the-century home that was once a decorative residence, maybe one of the first in the neighborhood, so they felt an obligation to restore it to a state of respectability as best they could. They started by repairing the broken window. Then they polished the off-white porcelain walls in the bathroom, which had beautiful aging hairline cracks and a brilliant blue row about ¾ of the way up each wall. They tore up the carpet and found gorgeous wood floors underneath, which they polished to an elegant sheen. They scrubbed the kitchen and its gigantic, old-fashioned farm sink that took up half a wall.

The stove was a noble old gas burner that featured intricate scrolls made out of heavy metal scripted along the back of a broad iron shelf. They liked the stove so much that although they didn’t cook much because they could eat at the deli for free, they always made it a point to cook something on the stove once or twice a week. They threw away most of the furniture and pictures that were left there and redecorated with whatever they could cobble together from friends, family, thrift stores, garage sales, and their own accumulated furniture, kitchen supplies, and artwork, to include a number of first-rate photos Olivia had shot. They also raked, fertilized, and mowed the front and back yards and even arranged planters on the back porch and grew beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and chili peppers. And although it never came to pass, Abby and Olivia dreamed of painting the house a clean shade of off-white.

For the first few weeks, the girls maintained a quiet lifestyle and usually kept the lights out at night. The houses in the neighborhood were built close to each other, and even though some of the neighbors must have known the girls were squatting, no one said anything, or at least they didn’t seem to care. The girls started having guys over. Abby was in lust with quite a few around that time: Darren, who was a private school rich kid rebelling against his parents, strikingly handsome, always up for any new adventure, generous with his money, and able to play a mean harmonica; Tim, who had exquisite tattoos but was also addicted to coke and street fights; and Joel, who could skate a half pipe as if performing an intricate ballet. Olivia was more monogamous, hanging out mostly with Anton, a very resourceful guy who had arrived in the States from Ukraine as a young orphan and was now one of the most popular bartenders in Port Jefferson.

After a few months, the girls decided to have a party. They hired a live band, stocked the kitchen with a few kegs and plenty of deli meat, bread, and chips, and opened the doors for as long as anyone wanted to stay. Around one hundred people showed up over the course of the day, and things got so loud that one of the neighbors decided to call the police in the late afternoon. Two officers arrived, told the girls to tone things down, and left without issuing anyone so much as a citation. Nate and a few of his Army buddies showed up in the early evening. The moment Abby laid eyes on him, she knew she was going to do whatever it took to make him hers.

4

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.