All things considered, it had quieted down a great deal over the past months. Sure, there was and would always be the nonstop family drama—what passed for normal around here—but the high stakes, world-changing events had been few and far between.
I’d kept my head down, staying buried in the work of public relations. Glad-handing at events, neutralizing negative stories and planting positive ones fed the hungry media and kept a goddess busy. It also kept me away from being directly involved in the ongoing family squabbles. Duck and weave, hide, and lie low are my specialties.
Given the nature of PR work, receiving another invitation to another event in another odd location was nothing unusual. My calendar was filled with them. So, while an event at a warehouse wasn’t particularly noteworthy, what stood out was that it was unclear who was hosting it and why.
As usual, I was fashionably late, which spoke more to my reluctance to attend these yawn-worthy functions than it did to my busy schedule. Mostly, it was a tactic to avoid the rush of cocktail kisses, and idle chit-chat doled out to the early arrivals. It’s easier to sneak in, score some hors d’oeuvres, a drink or two, and a quiet spot tucked away from the center of activity when everyone was wrapped up in their quickly formed cocktail cliques.
I saw from the doorway of the old warehouse that an exquisitely appointed interior stood in stark contrast to the dilapidated exterior. Inside, luxurious dark fabric draped the walls, and little lights twinkled like stars. The feeling was as lush as a sultan’s tent set against Nyx’s darkest sky.
I slipped in quietly, snagged a glass from an attendant, and wandered in, scoping the room for a dark corner table where I could plant myself. I sipped the drink and immediately recognized it as top quality, vintage ambrosia, likely from Hestia’s private stores. Whoever was hosting this event had some serious pull to score that delicious nectar.
I barely swallowed my first sip when the lights lowered and the room filled with the sound of chanting. The black silk drapery fluttered, then fell to the ground, unveiling highly polished, elaborately encased mirrors, each with a name etched into the frame. The room pulsed and throbbed with power, and I heard a sucking sound as a force pulled us toward the imploding mirrors. Yanked out of my borrowed mortal form, I watched as she crumpled to the ground. And then there was nothing.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she stared at an ancient and entirely unfamiliar light fixture. The dingy, off-white ceiling had a curious crack that zig-zagged from wall to wall. The crack seemed significant, like a metaphor or message, and she studied it, trying to discern its meaning.
A syrup-sweet southern voice popped into her awareness and declared, “I suppose there’s no danger of anyone stepping on the crack way up there. I do believe we can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that mother’s backs, everywhere, remain safe.”
She giggled softly.
A man’s raspy voice responded flatly with an undertone of annoyance, “Hardy-har-har. You crack me up.”
One by one, other chattering voices chimed in. The volume increased as each new voice blended into the cacophony until it sounded like a cocktail party, with Lionel Richie singing in the background.
♫♫ Oh, what a feeling. Dancing on the ceiling… ♫♫
“Darling, if you want to make an omelette, you gotta crack some eggs.”
“This is what happens when they wake you at the ass crack of dawn.”
“Oh, come on, sugar, ain’t you gonna even crack a smile?”
“Jimmy crack corn, and I don’t care!”
“She’s going to be a tough nut to crack.”
“Damn fool uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
“Can you crack the code?”
“CRACK THE CODE!”
“CRACK THE CODE!”
The din of the chatter faded as a strange rhythmic squeaking noise replaced it.
Eek eek-Eek eek
She lowered her eyes from the ceiling, searching for the source of the squeak, and found herself in a small industrial beige room with a single dresser and single fiberglass chair. The sound was coming from outside the closed door that had a small window in the upper center. She could barely make out lights through the cross-hatched mesh that covered it.
She sat up in the narrow, single bed to better gauge her surroundings when the world immediately tilted, wobbled, and spun, causing her stomach to lurch and her head to throb. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face into her hands, waiting for the sensations to worsen or subside.
“Am I hungover?”
Eek eek-Eek eek
As the pounding in her temples dulled, she cautiously slit her eyes open and eventually lowered her hands, noting a plastic band fastened around her wrist. It read: Malone, Maxine R. followed by a date, Dr. Z. Cronuson, and random, seemingly meaningless alphanumeric codes. There was a second orange Tyvek bracelet as well. It proclaimed: Flight Risk.
She arched her brow as she studied it and said, “Apparently, I’m a drunk. My name is Maxine, and I can fly.”
A chorus of voices rose inside her head and sang a disjointed medley.
♫♫ I believe I can fly… Fly like an eagle… Fly me to the moon… One day I’ll fly away… ♫♫
Eek eek-Eek eek
There was a jangling sound followed by the distinctive click of a lock, then the door opened. A peculiar little man dressed in white stood for a moment watching her, then turned to the cart he was pushing and retrieved a tiny paper cup.
“Time for your meds, Maxine,” he said as he entered the room, extending the souffle cup containing a variety of brightly colored pills to her.
“What did I teach you about strangers?”
She stared at his outstretched hand, then looked up at him curiously. “Uh, I don’t take candy from strangers.”
He chuckled. “We aren’t strangers, Max. We are old friends.”
She eyed him warily. “Oh? Then why don’t I know you…?” Her gaze moved to the badge on his shirt. “Gerard, is it?”
“See? You do know me,” he said, smiling.
She pointed to the badge pinned to his chest. “No, but I can read.”
“Hatpins make excellent weapons. I bet that pin of his would do in a pinch.”
She stared at his nameplate, nodding absently.
“Hmm. I guess we are having one of our bad days today,” he replied.
“We? Who are we?”
The chorus of voices sang softly.
♫♫ We are the champions… The way we were… We are family… ♫♫
She shushed the voices, “Shhhh.”
He shook the cup of pills lightly. “By we, I mean you, Maxine. You and the cast of characters inside of your head. Now take your pills so they will go back to sleep.”
“Can you hear them, too?”
“Sometimes,” he replied. “Sometimes they get really loud. The pills make them be quiet. Now be a good girl and take your pills.” He stepped closer to her, rattling the pills in the cup.
“Don’t let him silence us. We protect you. The pin. Get the pin.”
She shook her head emphatically. “No, Gerard. I don’t want your pills. I don’t know where I am or who you are. I’m not just going to swallow a bunch of pills some strange man tries to give me.”
He exhaled a long, frustrated sigh. “Let’s not do this again, Maxine. Either you take the pills on your own, or I’ll be forced to make you take them.”
Maxine curled her lips inward and shook her head.
“Fine, we’ll do it the hard way,” Gerard grumbled and advanced toward her.
“It’s time to get cracking.”
“SNAP! CRACKLE! POP!”
Maxine swung, knocking the pills from his hand. She lurched forward and grabbed the name badge, ripping it from his shirt.
“Blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light,” her voices chanted.
Startled, Gerard watched the pills fly across the floor and turned back just in time to see the pin arcing toward his face. He moved his head away, but not before she sliced his cheek. He backed away from her to the door, yelling, “No, Maxine. No!”
“Let the sunshine…” Maxine and her chorus sang loudly as she swung again, this time driving the pin into his cheek. “Let the sunshine in…The sunshine in…”
Gerard fell back out of the room, howling and holding his cheek as blood bloomed along the slice and around the entry point of the pin.
Maxine watched him scramble out of the room, smiling placidly, then spoke in a slow southern drawl, “Gerard, darlin’, you simply must learn to mind your manners. When a lady says no, she means no. I could do with a nice cup of tea, however.”♫♫ Tea for two and two for tea… ♫♫