Clare McCullough

Frankie and the Witch Fingers

Frankie and the Witch Fingers’ wiped the sweat out of their eyes. It was a hot summer night as they ducked into Milwaukee’s Cactus Club for sound check. Later that night, they would be an endless source of power between the anthem and the poetic. This headline show put on by Hear Here Presents gave the hot July night something to scream about.

They elevated their energy by starting with a bliss-ridden vibe mirroring King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Their guitars supported a singer who together achieved psychedelic perfection in their song, “Realization.” Their guitar is the main star. Its momentum is clearly felt by their drummer, Nick Aguilar, “When I see people moving, it’s my love language.” He told me, in between the background elation of his fans’ post-mosh revelry. 

But just beyond the curtain, two more bands tapped their feet. They all waited for their chance to take the stage.

At the end of their show, they thanked Hot Garbage, who opened for them. Hot Garbage, based out of Toronto, was dope dope dope. The bass and the drums existed almost independently from the guitar and keyboard, playing with extreme contrast. They incorporated an enticing tone that reminded me of Meatbodies. Alex Carlevaris, the lead on Hot Garbage, said he wrote “for no one and for nothing.” 

Fellow Kinsman is a Milwaukee band I have been meaning to see for years. Their music had clear influences of Miles Davis. Nate Kinsman, the lead singer, and guitarist told me they will release a new album in the Fall of 2022, which was “a long process but a good one.”

Haikus from 4/3/22

The Rabbit eats grass

Grass eats the rabbit

Everyone shows up for dinner

.

.

In the morning I

bathe in cold water

and become the land

.

.

Spring grass, autumn tree

pale green are new shoots of leaves

then brighten to red

.

.

Flower floating down

resting like a pink butterfly

on my twitching nose

.

.

All I see is red

leaves, apple, heart, shoes, flowers

my ego bursts out

.

.

Take my grandma off

her meds because stupidity

will heal swollen legs

.

.

I stop believing

God when he tells me that spring

won’t last forever

.

.

There are better ways

to complete tasks than

orderly one by one

.

.

Take my hands hostage!

you do not need any rope for-

I will follow you

.

.

Leaves whisper among

the sound of the rushing wind

In shade, a deer stands

.

.

Connected by words

perhaps more than a language

loving is a verb

.

.

Washing your hands is-

music, chords of muscle, water

soap, notes, keys, and hope

Haikus from 2014

Slow my woman blooms

unfamiliar Crescendo 

Only dreams of curled toes

Cigarette burns.   On

Arms to distract from pain

Of the mental sort

I treat holidays

Like work days and workdays like

Holidays too short

Feet and hands too cold

Stiff and bloated they hang   Like

Full orange moon In Sky

Sixteen years have past

I am on my seventeenth

Anything new dude?

Discovering

Newfound Sexuality

Is discouraging

heavy feet, walk on water

slipping to bottom

everything green and blue

Repeating Thoughts

I repeat thoughts a lot

Like

I love you

I miss you

I just wanna kiss you

What should I have for

Dinner today.

Should I Use the Paring Knife

With the Brown Handle

And Nicked

Blade

In the Drawer.

I admit I am a creature of habit

The lights aren’t always lit

In this home of a body and-

Houses sometimes get broken into

So It follows that you mustn’t wallow

You must walk around hollow

Some days

And Smile cause maybe

You’ll mean it 

tomorrow

The Flight of the Yellowjacket

I

Cass’s violin strings resonated. Tasting the anticipation building thick on her tongue like honey, she cleared her throat and checked her posture. With gentleness, she wielded her bow up and across her body. Her touch lighter than a breeze buzzed across the strings. She tilted her head as she adjusted her grip on the bow. The knobs creaked as she adjusted the tuning. Sound shook her shoulder and discharged a thrill into the pit of her stomach. 

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra sat behind her, and she looked out across the crowd. Her squinting eyes searched past the stage lights. Her eyes settled on an empty seat. A small white reservation sign sat there, undisturbed. She frowned and cleared her throat again, ripping her eyes away. Cass felt a slight lift in her stomach.

The second violin smiled at her, politely waiting for Cass to take the lead. Her fingers perfectly positioned over the strings to begin their plucking.

The crowd was now completely silent and leaned forward, waiting for the spell to begin. The public trained all their attention on the conductor. The conductor was still lower than the orchestra, dressed in all black and standing on a podium. He held his wand up.

Cass drew her bow with the first dip of the conductor’s wand. The silence shattered. “The Flight of the Bumblebee” broke over the silent crowd. 

As she played, her heart beat fast, and with every pump through her veins, she felt more completely herself. In the intense lights of the stage, she was more authentic, more perfect than she ever felt off of the stage. Every second of this song was all her. The tempo barely tamed the music. It extended past the smooth fabric of her skin and lifted above everyone’s heads, every darkness and every light contained within her visible. Her soul undulated under the power of the tight turns of note and measure.

When the song subsided, and the rest of the orchestra shifted in their seat, all of them leafed through their music to the next song. Cass looked again at the empty seat in the crowd, and after a minor deflation, she looked at the second violin. Cass couldn’t help but share her smile with the second violin beamed at her.

After the performance, Cass put away her violin in its soft velvet bed in her case. Loud shouting echoed in the hallways, now empty of the attendees. She was just buttoning up her coat as her orchestra-mates shouted to her. ”Cass!” They poured into the room, surrounding her.

“Hey, guys.” Cass stifled a yawn and forced a small smile.

The second violin bounced toward her, “Fantastic job tonight. Miss Cass Touchstone, I think that was the best you’ve ever played! Why don’t you join us for a drink? Let’s celebrate the last concert of the year!”

Cass smiled and put on her pedestrian shoes, white new balances. “Oh, not tonight. You all go ahead and have a drink for me.”

“Why not?” the second violin probed.

“I’ve got an early start tomorrow. See you at practice on Monday.” Cass took a step toward the door, skirting around the edges of her orchestra mates.

“Well, alright. We’ll miss you. Drinks some other time, though, right?” The second violin peered into her face, searching for something. 

“Yeah. See you.” Cass waved and exited. The cold winter air hit her face as she braved the winter Milwaukee air. 

As she walked, her stomach churned. Her mind was obsessing, as usual, why hadn’t he come? He had said he would come to see her last performance of the year. He had promised her would come. Cass bit and picked at the sides of her nails. She stopped picking to take out her car keys and light up the ignition. The freezing steering wheel burned her palms, and she winced. Shivers racked her body as she frantically smacked the heater, willing her engine to warm.

As she turned the wheel onto 7th street, she felt something in her palm snag in the wheel’s groves. She squinted through the deep dark. The red stoplight illuminated her palm. There was a hard bump below her ring finger on her palm. She furrowed her brow and pressed on it. There was a sharp sting, and she winced. Pursing her lips into a frown, she sighed, thinking about the last time she had her previous check-up, almost more than a year ago. Her day job as a line cook at a small diner didn’t give her healthcare benefits, not that the COVID-19 Pandemic was any help getting her foot into the door as an uninsured person.

II

When she got home, Jasper was already asleep in bed. He was breathing softly. 

Cass pushed down the urge to flip on the light and flip out on him. The words built in her chest. She counted in common time. As quietly as she could, she put her things away, got ready for bed, and then crawled in. She breathed in his scent.

He groaned and pulled her closer. He kissed her on the forehead. “Hey, Cass.”

“Hey.” Cass’s lips pulled to the side. 

“How did it go?”

“Good.” She felt the pillow lining. “I missed you.” She whispered.

He pulled her closer. “I missed you too.”

“I love you.” Then why didn’t you come? I bought your ticket. I left it for you. I texted you twice about the time and the address. You promised you would come. It was the last day in over a year I would play again.

“I love you too.” He sighed into her hair. After a slow 60 seconds, he began snoring softly.

She pushed down her irritation. She wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t say anything. She couldn’t say anything that would make him upset with her. How could she ever stay mad at him? He had his own life, and of course, she had to respect that.

She woke up before him. Her body protested when she stood, cracking at her knees and her neck. She smoothed her hair into a ponytail and began making breakfast for the two of them. When he walked out, he pushed his hair out of his brown eyes and smiled, his two dimples showing off. 

She stirred the eggs in the pan as he pressed himself into her and kissed her neck. She stiffened at first but then melted into him, lifting a hand and rubbing the stubble on his cheek. She giggled, feeling slack. “Good morning.”

“Good morning. It smells good.”

“Thanks, baby.” She looked at the empty Mr. Coffee in the corner of the room. If he didn’t come to my show, what was he doing? The question was on the tip of her tongue. 

He sat down, watching her in an almost predatory way, that intense look in his eyes. God, how she loved that look. 

She swallowed the question with a smile and then left the bacon on low heat to start the coffee. She grabbed two mismatched plates and two mismatched coffee mugs. “Would you like some water, baby?”

“Yes, please.”

She smiled at him and set the table, grabbing silverware and getting a water glass for Jasper. The light from the window bent inside of the glass. A small vortex, a hurricane, spun in her hands. She placed the glass in front of him and moved to get to the bacon.

“Could I have some ice?” He smiled at her, grabbing her hand.

“Of course, baby.” She grabbed his water glass and put a couple of ice cubes in it. She placed it in front of him.

“Thank you.” He retook her hands and gave her a gentle kiss on the back of her hand. 

She smiled. She felt the same tiny pinch in her skin as last night. The tight twist set her on edge. A soft buzzing sound began, so she rubbed the front of her ear as if she was trying to get rid of trapped water, waiting for the hot melting of release that didn’t come.

She placed his breakfast in front of him, filled his coffee cup and then filled her plate, and finally sat down. 

“Thanks for breakfast, baby.” He smiled at her and then stood up.

“Where are you going?” Cass stared over her full plate at his empty one, which had nothing left but crumbs on it.

“I’ve got a game with the guys.” He gestured into the other room, where a blue light emanated from his desktop computer.

“Oh.”

“I’m already late. Catch you later?”

“Sure.” She smiled. “I’ll just clean up.”

He brightened. “You’re the best.” He kissed her forehead.

She watched him leave. Then, she was alone in the kitchen. Her breakfast was still half-eaten. She finished it and downed the rest of her coffee. 

The sound of his computer booted up in the other room as she reran the faucet, this time, she watched the water churn and disappear down the drain. The buzzing sound in her ears drowned out anything from Jasper’s room.

Plugging the drain, she put the dishes in the sink and squeezed the blue dishwashing liquid. It made streaks until the churning water obscured the bottom of the sink with suds. She knocked Jasper’s water glass over as she was washing the dishes. With a heart-stopping crash, it broke. She picked up the shattered pieces and then cut herself accidentally.

“Shit.” She sighed and washed the tiny wound.

She looked over at the empty doorway. Jasper had his giant headset on. He hadn’t even noticed the disturbance.

 She rubbed her hands and saw another small bump crest her muscle and then disappear in her left wrist. She furrowed her brow and felt along the veins and bone and sinew of her wrist. Wincing, she felt a sharp pain again, just like last night. Her fingers searching over her skin, she tried to find it again, feeling over where the bump had appeared. It had already gone. She shook her head as if it would make her forget her phantom pains and then bandaged her cut finger. She took care of the broken glass, placing it carefully into a paper bag. She took her coat off of its hook and threw a hat on and a pair of brown boots. She took the paper bag filled with glass outside to the recycling with a careful heft.

III

When the sun touched her face, her brain became the fizz in a freshly opened soda bottle. The shadows had just begun to shorten, it being close to noon. She started walking despite the cold, sliding slightly on the ice on the sidewalks and sidestepping the puddles that trickled from the slush on this unseasonably warm winter day. She placed one foot in front of the other and didn’t stop until she got to a park. 

The sun was in the center of the sky by then. The trees around her waved, and she heard the chirping of birds. The sound of traffic echoed in the background. The wind as always in Milwaukee cut through the fabric of her coat she had hurriedly tossed on. But away from the shadows and in the sun.

There was a homeless man, covered in blankets, to her left, despite it being warm for the season. His blankets bunched up around him and had quarter-sized holes in the fabric. Beside him was a ripped backpack. An empty water bottle sat at his feet. He coughed, and Cass maintained a wide berth.

After taking a couple of steps, she heard a buzzing sound. She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked up. This time, it wasn’t in her head.

A small papery wasp nest hung directly above her. The wiggling, thin-waisted bodies of the wasps flew in and out of the brown nest—what a strange way of moving they had. Every jerk of their legs and wings was unapologetic in their carnivorous movements. She felt a pinch on the back of her left hand so extreme she gasped a little. She looked down at her hand.

A series of bumps surfaced and disappeared like tiny whales cresting an ocean wave. Loud shouting disrupted Cass’s focus on her shifting skin. 

A group of small boys ran by. “Hey, look at that!” One of the taller ones shouted and stopped short. He bent down and picked up a rock. The taller boy pitched the rock at the wasp’s nest and missed it, narrowly. The rest of the boys laughed and began pelting the nest with rocks.

The homeless man coughed again. He glared at the boys. “What do you think you are doing? Stop!” 

“Shut up, you stupid old man!” The boys pointed their rocks toward him. As the rocks hit him, he stumbled back. He threw up his hands to protect his face. 

Cass opened her mouth to say something, anything. She couldn’t hear anything over the loud buzzing. Her skin pinched in more and more places, moving away from her hands and wrists into her soft belly and thighs. Cass said nothing but balled her fists up. The wasps buzzed more and more angrily.

They threw rock after rock. The gray, salt-stained missiles sailed above the tree branches. As the rocks rocketed, she heard a soft papery rustle.

The wasp nest floated to the ground by the homeless man’s feet. The wasps, now angrily buzzing, left their destroyed home. They stormed out in a cloud and surrounded the homeless man. They stabbed their sharp stings into his face and hands. He cried out in pain and sat up like a shot. He popped up from his position and limped away from the nest. Pained groans were released from him. He tripped over one of the rocks scattered around the sidewalk. With a sharp crunch, his groans turned into screams of pain.

All the breath had left Cass’s lungs. Cass watched this all happen, her hand coving her mouth. 

She barely registered it when the wasps went after the boys. They screeched and tore away from the park, leaving the limping man in the cloud of wasps.

The homeless man began wheezing. His face became red and his eyes puffy. With difficulty, he looked up at Cass. “Call 911.” The buzzing sound became a high-pitched whining.

She immediately shoved her hand in her pocket and drew out her phone, her fingers shaking as she dialed the emergency number. By the time the ambulance had come, the homeless man’s face was unrecognizable. They wheeled him into the ambulance, and the cold came back. She stayed until the shadows were long again, the police taking her statement. 

“Can you hear that?” She stared at the empty wasp nest on the ground.

The cop looked at her strangely. “Hear what?’

“Oh, nothing. I think it’s just the traffic.”

“I see.”

“Will he be okay?”

“I can’t say for sure.”

It was as if her skin wasn’t her skin anymore. Her body pinched and plucked and stung with every new thought. She could’ve prevented this. The words were right there on the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t do anything. She couldn’t even stop boys from destroying that wasp nest. She did nothing to stop them from hurting the homeless man. All she did was call 911, and by then, it was too late.

She walked home. She looked behind her shoulder as if the wasps would still be after her. The door clicked behind her as Cass got home. The sun had set, and something had shifted inside of Cass.

She picked up her phone and found the second violin’s contact. She pressed the button, and the harsh ringing sounded. 

“Cass?”

“Hey Marsha, are you free tonight?”

“Yeah! I mean, yes, I am free tonight. What were you thinking?”

“Let’s get that drink.”

IV

“Have you ever been here before? Marsha asked.

“No, never.” Cass forced a smile.

“Let’s get a table first.”

“No, let’s start with drinks.”

Marsha looked up in surprise. “Really?”

“What? Do you not want me to come with you?”

“I can get them.”

“I’ll come too.”

Marsha laughed and beamed at Cass, “No, of course, it’s just that I’ve never pegged you as the drinking type.”

The music was deafening in the bar, but at least she didn’t hear the buzzing anymore.

“What would you like?” The bartender asked

“I’d like anything with honey and tequila.”

“The honey bee it is.”

Cass smiled tightly, “Thanks.”

“So, what did you do today?” Marsha asked. 

“I-” Her voice caught in her throat. “It was a tough day today.”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“No, not today.” Cass felt the buzzing begin again. “Actually, could we get a couple of shots.”

“Oooh, that bad, huh?” Marsha shrugged. “Fair enough.” She turned her attention to the bartender. “Two-shots, please.”

Cass cleared her throat. “Each.” Her voice was clear above the buzzing noise.

Marsha laughed and nodded. “We’re ubering home tonight!” She cheered as the bartender poured their shots.

Cass cheered with Marsha and took the two shots one after the other, hot bile rising in her throat as she pushed down the cheap liquor. She forced it down. After that, she felt warmer. The bar was crowded and loud with conversation, and Kendrick Lamar’s Humble blasted. It was as if she had been placed there by someone else.

V

Jasper was still playing video games. He didn’t look up when she walked in and sat on the couch. She stared at the takeout boxes next to him.

“You know how it’s funny. I’ve noticed that you never eat any food in the fridge unless it’s served to you. Or delivered or served at a restaurant.”

“What?” He looked at her. 

“You never eat unless someone gives it to you already prepared.”

“What are you talking about?” He wrinkles his nose and pops one massive headphone to the side.

“You’ve never noticed that?”

“No,” He said and turned off his game.

“If there are ever any leftovers, you don’t eat them unless I heat them for you. You never cook any food for yourself. If food is your responsibility for the day, we always eat out.”

“Yeah, so? I’m not a good cook.”

“That’s just an excuse.”

He laughed. “I think you’re overthinking this.”

Cass laughed too, but her voice was high-pitch, nearly hysterical. Her face felt hot from the tequila. “Yeah, you are probably right.” Another bump raised on her thigh this time. She cleared her throat and pulled the blanket over her legs. “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That buzzing sound.”

“You’re probably just practicing too much.”

“I have to practice, Jasper.”

“I know that.”

“Do you, Jasper?” She stood now, and she flinched as she heard her voice come out in a yell. “We’ve been dating almost two years now, and you’ve never been to a single one of my concerts.”

“I-”

“And you never, never try to meet my needs. I deserve more. I deserve better.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“No, I’m not. You’re being a total jerk right now.”

“Listen, your drunk. Let me get you a glass of water, and hopefully, that will help you to not be such a bitch.”

Cass’s jaw dropped. “I know you didn’t just say that to me.” She felt her skin pinch.

He held up his hands and shrugged. 

Her eyes stopped working. She wasn’t sure if they were open or closed. All she could hear was the rushing of blood in her ears and that buzzing. That BUZZING. The next she could see was the tile on the bathroom floor. The door rattled behind her. She had locked it and slid to the floor.

“Cass, get a hold of yourself and come out of the bathroom.”

Cass didn’t answer and cowered on the floor. There was something inside of her. Somethings. Cass had bumps underneath her skin. She scratched and picked at her skin. Her throat was sore, and she realized she had been screaming.

She tried to shrug the bumps off, but they had collected upon her like flowers in the spring. Every time she bent over, she felt the hard penny-sized things underneath her flesh. As we age, when you feel those sorts of things become your body as your frail, you will live until after tomorrow (how arrogant we are sometimes) that something like god will ever exist in our lives. 

You ever wonder, and that then you think, you, end up wondering too much, and that if you had wondered enough yet to cover every question regarding everything. You would like nothing more than a dry blanket and maybe a cool one on your forehead as you think too much and then get overstimulated and down on yourself. There is nothing wrong with experiencing everything. It’s just that. You know. That thing. What’s wrong with me and everyone else I am thinking of? It’s that we are always the good guys, the person who is setting out the rights like it’s a table, and we are all ready for dinner. It’s insane sometimes (And I wonder if I am not just simply delirious too I had never known doubt and then relief and anxiety and then death and that BUZZING.

“No,” Cass heard her voice pitch into a screech. Oh god, now I really sound like a psycho, she thought. “I told you to leave me alone. Leave me alone.”

Cass looked closer at her fingernail. Where she had ripped off a strip of skin beside her fingernail. Blood collected at its surface, and she saw, to her horror. A pair of tiny shimmering wings flutter up from it. All sounds were gone except for a high-pitched buzzing sound close to her ears. Actually, in her ears. The wings flapped once, and a leg appeared and then another, and then a slim-waisted wasp removed itself from her flesh. 

One after another, they rushed out from her blood. They formed a cloud above her but did not sting her. All fear left her.

Quarterlife Crisis

INT. APARTMENT KITCHEN – 9AM

Alexis grabs her purse from the chair and puts it on. Alexis adjusts her hair in the mirror on the fridge. She grabs a diet coke, cracking it open and kicking it back with great satisfaction. We see her college diploma, framed on the wall reading 2019 graduation date. She grabs her keys. Her mismatched socked feet match themselves with a couple of patent black slip-on. As she grabs the door handle, she notices a pair of bright red high heels in the corner of the room. 

EXT. APARTMENT PAVILLION – 9AM

You hear her feet more than you see them. The click and open of the door and the slam as it closes are much louder than the blackbirds loitering. The pavilion is beautiful with tall overhands and short and tall but always skinny vines leading up to the sky. A small water fountain bubbled in the center.

TITLE QUARTER-LIFE CRISIS text follows Alexis as she crosses from the left side of the screen to the right. The bubbling of the main fountain and birds in the background.

EXT. OUTSIDE OF APARTMENT BUILDING – 9AM

Alexis’s phone rings and Alexis moves around her diet coke to get to the ringing and glowing thing in her purse, but as she has her entire left forearm bandaged, her movement is limited. She drops her keys in her left pocket and fishes out her phone. 

Hey what’s up… yep, yep, I’m driving, 5 min away. .. No, yeah I am not still at my apartment.. Is there parking at this thing? Oh Okay. I said OH OKAY. See yah.

Hearing a soft tinkle she looks down and sees that a quarter from her purse had landed perfectly on its side at her feet. 

She leans down to inspect closer.

It wobbles a bit, setting Alexis’s teeth forward, but it doesn’t lose its delicate one/sixteenth of a balance. Still, on its side, the quarter begins to roll away. 

Without hesitation. Alexis walks forward and follows it into the neighborhood, her friend she had just hung up on and the destination that she was going to be late to, completely forgotten. 

Dogs barking, a biker swerves to avoid hitting Alexis on the intersection of Park Street and Indiana Street. 

Alexis walks out into the traffic on Dunlavy Street and Indiana street, where a car stops short of hitting her. Just beyond the road and a little past the bend, The quarter rolls over the hill and into the gutter. 

Having caught up with it, she picks the quarter up, brushing off the dirt. She looks up from her quarter and sees a mural of a quarter on the wall of the convenience store.

She looks at her quarter, and then she looks at the mural, and the story has come full circle, she smiles.

Crucifix

I

A young receptionist yawned as the phone rang behind her. The receiver sat black and blocky. She released it and put it up to her ear with a soft click. Its wire tangle of tight spirals clacked on the desk. 

“This is the Milwaukee Art Museum. My name is Natalie Beck. How can I help you?” 

“***9**wnk…” 

“I’m sorry, one second, I can’t understand you.” Natalie fiddled with the wires.

“Hello? When do you close?”

“Hello?”

“Hello, when do you close?” The voice repeated.

“9 PM.” 

“What time is it now?”

“8:30 PM.”

“Thank you.”

The receiver sent out the dial tone. She gazed at it and shrugged. “They hung up.” She replaced it and turned to her computer. 

Her cell phone buzzed. Her fingers flew to its off button, but she couldn’t resist a glance at her phone screen.

It was her dad sending her photos of their boat outing last week. She stashed it in her purse. As she plopped it on the desk, a handle broke. She wrinkled her nose at the shabby thing and wondered what time H&M opened the next day—twirling and untwirling the now detached strap of her purse around her fingers.

An icon popped up on her computer. Tossing the strap in the garbage, she scrolled the mouse wheel up and down and pressed print. She looked over the document, a dialog box appeared. Refill PrintCartiage2. 

The door opened. 

A man with a medical facemask, hat, and sunglasses stepped over the threshold. He took long strides. He placed his hands on the desk and cleared his throat.

 Natalie looked up at him and flashed him a smile. “Hello sir, how are you doing today?”

“One ticket, please.”

“Sure. I would like to inform you. The museum is closing in about nine minutes.” Natalie smiled. 

“I am aware.”

“The security guards will give you the heads up and will close up after you.”

“Thank you.”

 With a satisfying rip, she released it from the black printer. “Here you are,” She drew back a bit. A Clorox wipe canister sat next to her. 

He nodded and took his ticket. Saying nothing, he bent the cardstock. Then he turned to stalk off into the museum. 

She threw on her cardigan to guard against the early spring air. It was the nicest one her mother had given her last Christmas, a soft pink cashmere. Humming a melody by the Supremes and with a small spring, she stood from her chair. Double-checking over her workstation, she threw on her beanie and gripped her purse to her chest. 

The stars sparkled above the lake as she walked away. Admiring the wings which stretched out before Lake Michigan like the building was a bird ready to take flight. A fierce wind blew her hair into her face. Shaking her eyes free, she dove into her car. 

II

Natalie rolled up to her house. Turning out the headlights, she gathered her things. She made quick work of her walkway and unlocked her apartment door. Sighing in relief, she pried her shoes off, throwing them into a random corner of the room with a satisfactory clatter. Going right to the kitchen, she washed her hands and opened a La Croix with a swift crack. Kicking back the drink, she closed her eyes. 

She flicked the lights onto their dim setting and sat down, tucking her legs underneath her. The Tv turned onto a local news program detailing the rise of small-scale boaters in Milwaukee county. Her eyes drooped.

Her phone rattled and lit on the table. She sat up.

 Caller ID: John Walter. She rolled her eyes but accepted the call. Her hair kept falling in the way and she pushed it back as she brought the phone up to her ear.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Natalie?”

“Mr. Walter, What can I do for you?” She pushed back another stubborn strand of hair.

“Have you left work yet?

“I just got home.”

“Oh, I see. I hate to ask you this. I know it’s already 9:00. I left my ID at the art museum. I’m already at the airport. Would you go back and get it for me?”

“Sir, forgive me for the asking, but could I pick them up on Monday? It’s really out of my way.”

“That’s a No-go. I need to have them, and right now. I’m counting on you,”

“Alright, I’ll pick them up for you.” Natalie rubbed her eyes.

“Get them from the safe. The code is 900845. I owe you big time for this.”

Natalie rolled her eyes and tapped her foot. “Don’t worry about it,” what an asshole.

“Okay, so the plan is, go back to the Art Museum, get my ID from the safe, and then drop it off at my front door, then my wife will take my ID and do the last leg.”

“Why can’t your wife get the ID?” unbelievable.

“I’ll give you overtime?”

“Time and a half?”

“And I’ll buy you lunches for a month when I get back.”

“Yeah, I’m leaving now, no problem,” Natalie checked the clock. It was half-past nine. It was also dark out.

“You are a-maz-ing, Natalie! I owe you big time.”

“Yep, I’ll text you when I’ve finished,”

“Bye,” She hung up. A gust of air blew out from her mouth, a tortured sigh. Ignoring her work shoes, she pulls on a pair of ratty sneakers. Her keys cooled her hand as she shut and locked the door behind her.

III

 Richard Graham cleaned a crucifix with a small brush. The crucifix glittered under the fluorescent lights of the museum’s archives. It was made of solid gold and brass. There were three semi-precious stones on each of the four ends. Or at least there was. Out of the 12, there were only five stones left. The rest of them were missing.

Richard had steady hands trained by almost a decade of working with fine antiquities. His name tag at his chest read Historian.

The ceiling soared high and clear above him. Its magnificent arches were cradled like he was sitting as the yolk in an egg. Sheets of paper stacked neat and color-coordinated surrounded him like small skyscrapers.

Richard looked at the empty inlays where rubies and sapphires had once lived. He imagined where the stones were now. Perhaps they were in the hands of thieves or buried under the debris of a disaster. 

What rivers it might have crossed since 119AD. What tragedy must affect a human’s mind to commit to ignorance and defile a priceless work of art.

He pushed up the glasses on his face. Despite the long hours, his research notes were almost complete. His Ph.D. candidacy paper was perfected, save for a few gems. Chuckling to himself, he hefted the cross up to eye level. A dark figure reflected in the shiny surface of the cross and blocked the light from the hallway. Richard turned his head, the corners of vision registering a person.

“Put your hands up.” A voice said behind him.

“Don’t look at me. Look at the floor,” The voice said.

  “I’m putting my hands up now,” Richard pushed down a blast of fear. There was the door. Get to it now. It’s just right there. Not far at all. 

“Don’t look at me. Look at the ground.” The man said, and Richard’s blood went cold. A steel click devoured all other sounds in the room. A drip of cold sweat descended his back.

“Listen, if you want my wallet. You don’t have to do this.”

“Give me the crucifix,”

“The crucifix? What?”

Both of them turned toward a short slam of a door, a gasp, and the sound of objects clattering.

IV

Natalie pulled into the parking lot, leaving her car directly in front as she ran inside, now in sneakers. The light switches had small led lights which reacted to her movement. The lights turned on automatically as she walked through the tall building, past the galleries. She was using the pads of her fingers to trace around the walls. Adjusting her air pods, she took one out. The wind whistled across into the lake and went up the walkway to the art museum. 

“It’s not supposed to be this dark inside of the museum yet,” Natalie said to herself. Her iPhone buzzed as she lit her flashlight app and checked the time. 9:48 PM. 

Ducking to John’s office, she removed a painting from the wall with great care. There was the safe, which revealed itself, just as he had said. Natalie rechecked the time, 9:50 PM. She opened the safe.

A manilla folder sat with John’s ID underneath a handgun and a stack of cash. The handgun was sleek and deadly-looking.

Clearing her throat, she took out her AirPods and placed them on the desk behind her. The cash rustled against Natalie’s hands as she flipped through them. She cleared her throat and put them back down where she found them. Nudging the gun off of the folder with her knuckle, with agonizing slowness, she released the folder from its trapped state. 

The manilla folder yawned open in her hands, and Natalie accepted the offering of ID. Working around the damaged strap, and almost dropping its sleek faux leather, she opened the mouth of her purse. 

Music echoed in her AirPods in her ears as she replaced the painting. Pushing on the unlocked door, she shrugs it forward. It clicks into place. Secure, finally, now she could go home. She texted Mrs. Walters. She was on her way.

Taking a shortcut back to her car, Natalie goes back in and heads to the archives. A muffled noise echoed up the hallway. She took out her AirPods. There was the sound of voices from beyond. The words were still indistinguishable. 

“Hello?” Natalie whispers, her heart pounding. Her eyes were glued to the door handle, which was slightly ajar. She looks into the archives. The door slammed open with more force than she had intended. 

A handgun. Two men. The man she had sold a ticket to pointed a gun at Richard, the resident Ph.D. candidate. They looked at her. Their eyebrows drew up.

Natalie gasped and dropped her purse onto the ground, her phone and the contents of her purse spilled out of it toward the man with the gun. She trembled. 

The man glared at her for a split second and then turned his hand toward her.

Richard took his chance. Leaping at the man, he wrestled with him for the gun. Their limbs tangled, and the nose of the weapon. Her tilted up. Richard bared his teeth, and a wild look illuminated his eyes. 

Natalie looked on in horror, fear coursing through her veins. What do I do? She dove for her phone. Her palms ached as she gathered her purse. Getting back on her feet, she looked up. 

He kicked out and shoved a cloth-covered box toward her. It glided across the floor like a ballerina in the Nutcracker. Natalie stopped its trajectory.

“Take the crucifix!” Richard shouted at her.

“Get- upfh,” The shooter mumbled, clawing at Richard.

“What?” Natalie asked.

“Take the crucifix!” Richard shouted again. Natalie paled and clumsily grabbed it and the soft bed of cotton padding surrounding it. She clutched it and her purse like a newborn infant in her arms and ran for the exit. 

The gun popped. Natalie’s blood curdled as Richard’s scream tore the air. Her breath caught in her throat.

V

She stumbled and kept running. Navigating the tight stairwells of the parking garage, Natalie spots her car. It’s the only one in the lot. Digging through her purse, she clicks her keys, and the car snorts in response. 

The door slammed shut, and Natalie had to use two hands to put the key in the ignition, the way her hands trembled. The parking garage opened out into an empty intersection. There are five different ways,  and she drives south. Her hands fumble her phone—moonlight streams in through the windows.

“This is 911. What’s your emergency?”

The road lifted from the ground. Orange steel beams framed her eyes and over the Hoan bridge. Behind her, a sleek car tailed her closely. Pressing on the gas, she glanced at the car behind her and her dash. 

“Hello, my name is Natalie Beck, and there is someone following me in my car. I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum,”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on the Hoan bridge,” Natalie said. The car behind her bumped her, and her phone dropped from her hand. They were the only cars in the middle of the bridge.

On Natalie’s left, there was the open lake water. To her right, there were covered mounds of some industrial facility. She rubbed her neck, a sharp pain shot through her back. 

She screamed in frustration. “I just want to go back home!” Her foot pressed the gas pedal against the floor. Slowing down, she turned out from the bridge. Her eyebrows knit together as she turned and felt the left side of the car lift. The wheels bounced as they met earth again. With a drift and a screech, the car answered her sudden stomp on the brake. Before her, a gravel parking lot bordered a pier. A yellow sign and locked chain-link fence separated her from a marina of boats which shimmered in the light of the full moon.

The sleek black car pulled up. Pulling on the handle, she got out of her car. She gathered the gold cross, tied it into her purse, and climbed the fence. Dropping down onto the other side, she ran down the pier, her steps echoing on the tin material below her. The pier pitched and moved. But, her feet were sure, and she jumped onto the familiar-looking small boat. 

She searched for the keys in the boot of the first boat. No luck. She jumped out and tried another boat for its keys. No luck. The man was getting closer to her. She could hear his footsteps crunch on the gravel before the pier. She dove into the last boat and felt for the keys. Success. 

She entered the key into the lock and started the roaring engine. It spluttered, angry at being woken up and forced to work so late in the night. She untied the boat from its spot and angled the fast-moving speedboat into the lake. He stared at her, shouting obscenities. The full moon above revealed the fervor of his anger in the form of clouds of spittle and eyes bulging and nearly white. She sailed into dark lake Michigan. The wind pushed her hair around her face. She tucked the stray strands behind her ear. The echoing sound of her assailant grew softer and softer as she grew further from the shore.

VI

She goes out past the lighthouse. Standing, she shouts at another boat sailing by. It’s a bright spotlight trained on her.

“Are you Natalie Beck?”

“Yes,”

“We are the coast guard. Please allow us to invite you onto our ship for a chat.”

“Okay,” Natalie Beck said. A ladder bounced against the side of the Coast Guard’s boat. She sat on the ship wrapped in a blanket, and between sips of chamomile, she recounted the story.

“While we found tire tracks at the marina, we did not find any men around with that description.”

“Oh. So he’s still out there?”

“Yes.”

“Ma’am, I hope you understand, but you’ll have to come down to the station with us.”

“I’ll come with you.”

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