Advance Against Royalties

February 2024 — Aden Albert
Advance Against Royalties

I take a last look around my studio apartment. I pat myself down. Keys, purse, phone. I check the oven, the gas’s off. Hegen scratches at the window, wanting in. Its talons spray glass fragments on the fire escape. In finger-cant I tell it, Sorry. Not tonight.

It taps on the glass with its maw. Coming back?

I wait too long.

Not coming back, Hegen taps.

“Wait—” I say. The scratch in my throat surprises me.

But it’s gone, its eight wings throwing shadows across the city sky.

It deserves a better goodbye.

In the bathroom-bedroom-kitchen sink I check my mascara. After a moment I realize I’m not wearing any. It’s an excuse to look at this face again. The break in the line of my lower lip, where I got too close to the curb and a passing car’s antenna whipped me good. My asymmetrical haircut that I’m too old for, but I love it so much. I brush the few strays back over to the right. The bulb’s dying, jaundiced, it bleeds out the colors I’ve dyed in there. Layered in, careful ink washes, vibrant textures, and yeah it’s pretentious as hell but my stylist is the Wyeth and the Rothko of hair dye.

I look at the rest of me.

My hands…

This is where I’m supposed to say I never was much for nail polish. Complete the hard-charging kickass cool girl image. But as a kid? I loved it. I loved it. When my dad would paint my nails? The way he’d get all up close, like performing surgery on a microchip, looking over his glasses. Like it was the most serious thing in the world. It’s, it’s a really good memory.

Even now, I love it. Each one of my nails is a different color.

Even the ring finger on my left hand, which is a goddamn hard one to explain.

It’s my ghost finger.

Flesh and bone? Not there. Weird red mist afterimage? Yup. Black wedding band, more like a shadow or a twisting cloud? Yup.

And when I paint my nails, I don’t skip that one. And—bake my noodle—despite it not being, like, real, I can still paint it.

This is all an excuse to look at this body again.

It deserves a better goodbye.

It takes a train, a transfer, walking three blocks, and arguing with a stop sign to get to Loney’s. The door man wants three hundred to let me in, and I balk just enough to make sure he doesn’t ask for more.

Loney’s got a waiting room set up like he’s a dentist, or someone halfway respectable. Someone else must have brought the issue of Highlights I look through, because Loney doesn’t have a sense of humor. The bench sags in the middle. There’s a chair across the puke-green carpet, and I think about switching, but as soon as I push against the armrest his office door opens up.

“Sanna?” Loney’s five feet tall if he’s an inch. His body’s axe handles wrapped in boiled leather. His tattoos are ancient smudged stick-and-pokes. Or the first tattoos ever applied to skin. See him on the street, you’d think he was dying of cancer, or ate nothing but beef jerky for the last seventy years. Until you looked in his eyes.

“Loney.” I try to say it cheerful. “Here to borrow the amount we discussed, at the terms we discussed.”

He knows what’s up. “You still owe.”

“Not even going to invite me back?”

“You still owe.”

“This’ll pay it all back, and then some. A handsome investment.”

Loney raises his chin at the door. “You sound like all the other deadbeats, and honestly that’s disappointing. Would you leave? If Peter Peter has to bounce you it’s going to ruin my next five minutes.”

“I’ve got what I need,” I say.

His whole face narrows. “No shit.”

“It’s time.”

“The big score, huh.”

I flourish, pointing out my jacket, my purse, my full pockets. “Got my stuff. Though I could use some, uh, capitalism before I get going.”

“Capital,” he says, but he’s clearly somewhere else. “You for real?”

“For real. Heading to the shop, then Twelfth and Semple Used Books.”

He shivers. “Christ, don’t say it out loud.” Even Loney can’t help it. He looks to the corners of the room. “Y’know you got to sign.”

“I know.” I swallow. “Same terms—all on me, no matter what I do with it.”

Eyes me up and down for the longest time.

“Hey,” he yells. With his mouth wide open, I see all his nicotine-ruined teeth. All of them baby teeth, itty bitty things, ringing his jaws and going down the whole length of his gullet in rows, to disappear down his throat.

Door man steps inside.

“Papers,” Loney says.

Door man whistles. Reaches into his jacket pocket, freezes, his face passing from guilty to nonchalant to stoic, then reaches into his other pocket to pull a full-size clipboard with a pen dangling from that little beaded wire they have at banks to keep you from walking away with their shitty ballpoints. He hands it to me.

Aw, hell. It’s not a contract, it’s a promise gate. The lines on the page snap me into its alignment as soon as I witness the breadth of them. I don’t even have to sign. I only have to see.

The door man takes it back.

It’s a tic, I can’t help it. I rub the black band on my ghost finger with my thumb. Doesn’t feel like metal, more like silicone or rubber or something with give. “Yeah,” I say. Paddling hard against the current to come back to my own mind.

“You got your credit,” Loney says. “I got my insurance.”

Breaking a promise gate is going to be a real nightmare of a long weekend. I rub the wedding band on my ghost finger.

“All right, get gone,” Loney says.

Peter Peter steers me out the door, and when I come back to I’m on the street, and it’s a good thing, because then it’s too hard to get back inside and wring the life outta that little bastard.

Anyway. Time to go shopping.

There’s a secret cheat code to getting around all these contracts and agreements and quid pro quos:

Make sure you don’t have a future.

Sharks and kneebreakers like Loney don’t understand it, and because they don’t understand it, they can’t write it into their terms. Not in their terms? Can’t enforce it.

“Well well,” Borland chirps, as I walk up to her stall. She’s wearing cute overalls on top of this pink flannel shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. There’s a sign next to the register that says ASK ME ABOUT MY LIMB DIFFERENCE and there’s a smiling stick figure drawn next to it, with a hand on one arm and no hand on the other. “If it isn’t you.”


Borland frowns. “Yeah, okay.”

I pull the card out of my pocket. It wasn’t there before I went to Loney’s. When I drop it on her counter, it leaves a dent in the wood.

“Jesus, Sanna.” She picks up the yellow rectangle, turns it over in her fingers. “How much you—” She stops, purses her lips. “Ah. Aha. I get it. This is it?”

“Twelfth and—”

She swats me with her wrist. “Come on. You know what’s up.”

“Yeah,” I say. I shake. Like a dog, flinging water. “So. I need some stuff.” It’s hard to think, about myself. Hard to think in pronouns.

Before she can ask.

“Tell me a joke,” I say.



She nods, slowly.

“Knock knock,” she says.

“Who’s there.”

“Interrupting irony,” she says.

“Interrupting irony who?”

She stares at me.

I stare back.




“Goddamnit,” I groan.


It actually helps me feel better. “So. Yeah. I need some stuff.”

She raises her arms out. “The world, oyster, you know it.”

“How many empty lighters you got?”

She frowns. With her hand, she reaches below the register to a basket, then fishes it up to the counter. “Five?”

“I’ll take ‘em all.”

“You got a lot, but that’ll run up a hefty bill.”

“Wire nippers?”

“Like, regular wire nippers, or…?”

“Definitely not regular.”

She rummages behind her in a tackle box. “Got ‘em!” she crows. She lays them against the lighters. “And?”

“A gobstopper.”

“I don’t have any—unusual—ones.”

I nod slowly. “I know, Borland. I just want a gobstopper.”

She smacks me again, but smiles a little. She fishes one out of the mason jar and hands it over.

Right before I pop it in my mouth, I say, “And pay off your mortgage.”

She stops dead. “What?”

I point to the huge bulge in my cheek. “Bggbstppr.”

“You bitch, I’ll strangle you if you don’t—”

I spit the gobstopper back out into my hand. “Pay off your mortgage,” I say again.

She pales. “Sanna.”

“Do it.” I gather up the stuff she’s piled on the counter.

I leave Loney’s yellow card.

“This is it?”

“One way or another,” I say.


I put the gobstopper back in my mouth, so I don’t have to say anything else.

And then I walk away.


Twelfth and Semple Used Books.

Don’t say its name out loud.


It’s the city’s oldest, continuously-operating bookstore.


Its owner is some kind of immortal something-or-other who really likes old books.


Sooner or later, anyone with their head in the game and a desperate need will try a run at Twelfth and Semple.


If they get past the doors, they ain’t coming back out.

(Well, that shit remains to be seen.)

It takes a train, three transfers, a bus, two minutes waiting for the longest crosswalk light, a quick stop for a hotdog, another bus, and then six blocks to stand across the street from Twelfth and Semple.

And—this is embarrassing—I get really scared.

When I say people disappear when they go into the shop, I don’t mean, like, when it’s open, if they’re just shopping. I mean bad people doing bad people stuff. Trying to rob it. Or shoplift.

There’s a lot of talk about what’s inside. The standard slumber party bull: Books bound with human skin; fingernails from Marie Curie; a second edition of The King in Yellow, which is actually worth more, because first editions don’t exist. That’s all nonsense. The real stuff is worse, and more expensive, which is why everyone wants to get inside, and no one comes back out.

It’s the kind of stuff that Loney would give you all his money for, at a reasonable interest rate, compounded daily, because it’s just your future, and that’s no big deal.

Iron filings from the hammer that drove the first railroad spike, ever. Thread from the first red hood. A book of short stories about a place that’s a bunch of doors, but they’re not really doors. I don’t get why that one’s valuable, but I’ve had people talk to me about it. They’re always weirdoes.

Obviously there’s also books, the inkwell, the bookplates, expensive paper, stupid desk toys like sand zen gardens about an inch and a half square. The tin soldiers, the squeezy stress ball that looks like someone you almost recognize.

The yellow salamander mirror.

If you go to the store, and you’ve been having an exceptionally good year, say you’ve been promoted and your marriage is smooth sailing and whatever “hobbies” are, those are great, everything’s aces, you go to the store and you look around, and you browse, and you wander, and you don’t buy anything, you keep looking, eventually you’ll get to the farthest corner of the shop, and you’ll turn just slowly enough that you’ll see this flash of light, but where’s that coming from? there’s no window, and it’ll blind you ‘cause it catches you right in the eye, and then you’ll see a full-length mirror with marble feet and this weird arch at the top, and there’s a yellow salamander standing next to it, like it’s supposed to be crawling up the mirror but it’s half a foot away, and the weird flash of light left sparks in your eyes, and when you blink the sparks change shape and you could swear there are two people in the mirror, and that freaks you right the hell out and you leave, because they’re not people, they’re kids, black-eyed black-mouthed kids, screaming, and maybe it’s the rest of the year or maybe the rest of your life or maybe you die in six months from an aggressive skin cancer they should have caught or maybe you get hit by a falling bolt six inches long careening off the top of a skyscraper or maybe your spouse stabs you to death in your sleep, but that’s the end of your good life, until you aren’t alive anymore.

Of all the goddamn stuff in there, the yellow salamander mirror is what I’m here for.

My ghost finger itches underneath the painted fingernail. Itches real good. I wish I could scratch it, but then again, it’s not really there. I reach over with my thumb and mess with the wedding band instead.

“All right,” I murmur.

“All right, all right, all right.”

An old woman walks past me—it’s roughly one a.m. and she’s got a baguette sandwich in one hand that smells amazing, cheesy and maybe pesto? or something green, and in her other she’s carrying an orange cup that splashes around and definitely smells turbo foul. She gives me ten seconds of stink-eye before knobbing a huge bit of sandwich and walking away.

I walk across the street. I aim for casual, but land closer to anxiety disorder. Up on the stoop, the brass handle of Twelfth and Semple’s door breathes with menace and power.

I pull one of the empty lighters from my purse. I do a quick check, pull it to my eye, make sure there’s nothing in the reservoir, even though the plastic’s good. Bone dry. I hold it up to the brass door handle and roll the flint.

The wick catches and burns a hideous bruised purple. I let it go, farting rich oily smoke, for seven or eight seconds until it sputters. It’s spent, freezing against my skin, the plastic cracked and thinning. A quick glance to either side—baguette sandwich lady is long gone—I smash the empty lighter on the sidewalk and it explodes into thousands of glittering frozen shards. Even the metal cap breaks into rusting snow.

The evil radiating from the door handle’s maybe one-eight drained.

I rifle through my purse.

I should have just enough lighters.

Have to figure out something else for the inside, dammit.

Ten! It takes all! Ten! Of my lighters!

And then I’m inside.

And it’s real hard, in the louvered shadows and the smell of silverfish and decaying paper, not be fifteen again. Not to—not to remember, the feel of Jeremy’s hand in mine. Not to smell how he used too much aftershave. Or how I’d put on too much lip gloss. Or how it was too cold for me not to wear a jacket but I wanted him to notice how cute my band t-shirt was. I don’t think he’d ever heard of them.

I’ve still got their CDs.

Can’t find a CD player for the life of me.

God, I can’t do this now.

I run my hand on the shaved side of my haircut. Just fuzzed enough now that I’d need to get ready to buzz it again in a week, maybe ten days, if I was still going to be around.

I’ve got to get the hell out of the doorway.

I cut through the darkness past the register. There’s no cameras, no electric eye, no alarms to set off. Nothing so gauche. I

What was that?

Wood scraping on something.

I move past a spinner rack of last-minute gifts. The bottom pockets are page-a-day calendars with cartoon animals on them. I get a faint buzz in my fingertips, a slight numbness in my lips from being this close. I shiver. Borland knows some people—I guess Iknow some people—who research this kind of stuff. Isolate, counteract, if you can’t neutralize, take it out in the woods and set it on fire. They’d want these calendars.

I move past the register and there’s a small magazine rack, maybe five feet tall, six wide. They’re face-out and each one has a glossy portrait on the cover with minimal type. Their eyes watch me as I walk past. I reach into my pocket and pull my phone out, and from my other pocket a grease pencil. With the selfie cam open, I hold the grease pencil in front of my face and—like I’m drawing in the air—scribble on top of where my eyes are, in the picture. The grease pencil scribbles float in front of the screen.

I forget how much that shit hurts, every time, as grease pencil builds up on my corneas.

When it’s done, I put the grease pencil in my purse by feel and turn the phone around. I have to take it on faith, I can’t see shit. I swap it to regular camera mode—this has taken practice, I know where the button is but goddamn am I careful—and I reach around the phone to grab the grease pencil scribbles out of the air and fling them forward.

They hit the magazines with a snap! and then nobody’s watching me, not through that.

Takes a minute to blink the sting away, though. With the magazine eyes blinded I can’t be watched and whoever’s watching—I want to say if someone’s watching, but come on—whoever’s watching can’t come through.

I look at my watch. Not fast enough. Even if slow and steady wins the race.

The thing about the yellow salamander mirror is that you can’t go looking for it. You’ve got to let it find you, because you’re looking for something else.

So even if, say, you’re on a date—and maybe you didn’t call it a date, you’re just hanging out, because “date” sounds too weird and real and someone, let’s call them Jeremy, seems like he’d say yes to a date but he’s been okay with hanging out other times, so you ask him to hang out, only this time it’s at night and it’s not at school or a school-related function, so maybe you want it to be a date and Jeremy doesn’t know it’s a date, or maybe he knows you think it’s a date and he’s too nice to say it’s not, but—

Damn, breathe.

Any way. You can’t see it. The yellow salamander mirror lies beneath the surface, and there’s too much silt. But it’s there, waiting, and it can see you.

I corner around from atlases and slide past the shelf staircase. If there’s an organization system here, it’s unique to the owner. The titles change when if I look at them twice. Sometimes the spines change, too.

I’ve got to slow down, got to act like I’m here for something else.

No, I’ve got to be here for something else.

I reach out to pull a red linen volume from just below eyeline. The words are gold foil, but worn, and in the dark I can’t quite read them. My fingertips drag along the raised bumps of the spine and as they pass the letters, they prickle as if stung. It’s small, maybe pocket bible sized. There’s scorching on the upper-right corner, stains, and even if I tell myself it’s old coffee I know it’s not. The back cover has tooth marks, but the bite pattern’s not human.

I open the cover, gently. There’s a bookplate yellowed and crinkling to powder on the inside cover. Instead of a library card pocket, there’s thin lines and flowery script, but it’s cursive and I can’t read that shit. Looks pretty, though.

The edges of the pages are that rough feel, like the printers didn’t trim it right? I used to know the word for it. Did I? Maybe I just want to feel smart. But I flip one or two, until I get to the cover page.

A History of Detection and Alarm.

“Oh shit,” I say out loud.

I can’t help myself.

I mean it, I’m compelled.

I turn the page.

It’s typewriter printed, in the small caps: MRS. MARIONETTE.

I reach into my purse. I grab of the wire nippers, but they’re oriented wrong, the points stab into the soft skin between my thumb and index finger. Hard enough to bleed, I know that without looking.

I pull them out and I’m only slightly trembling.

Hard to say where it comes from, with the shelves and books and all the other surfaces to dampen it: the sound of scraping wood, dragging wires, and chittering teeth.

I leave Detection and Alarm—people with their head in the game call it the Orange Book, and yes, I know the cover’s red—on top of the staircase tread. I walk slow down the aisle, scanning around. She should be easy to spot. From what I’ve heard, easy to spot.

I should have used the bathroom in that hole-in-the-wall smoke shop like a block and a half ago.

I creep to the end of the aisle. My hand cramps and I relax it. The springs open the nippers’ jaws. With my other hand I fish my phone out of my pocket. I don’t want the flashlight—stay away from that button—I turn the camera on, see if it’ll show me anything…

I forgot, I’m poor, I bought a shitty phone.

As I slide it back in my pocket, there’s a rustling sound from just around the bookshelf to my right.

I know I shouldn’t, because I’m not a moron. But it’s on top of me, it’s all over me, like tight clothes. The book lets you know it’ll happen, and then it’s going to happen. I edge around the bookshelf, and there’s a trash can, a round metal one and it’s way out of place, a big black lawn bag inside, full of shadow and dark. Don’t do this, don’t do this, come on Sanna, don’t

I lean over the trash can.

Two wet, white eyes look back. They’re not glass or porcelain, they’re a woman’s eyes. The whites are veined. The irises contract. The pupils are dark. Droplets glisten around them. The eyes roll around, they’re too big and I see too much of them, I see all of the eyes because there are no eye lids, and when they roll around and stop in the center, the pupils shrink to pins focused right on me.

I can’t move.

The lawn bag rustles, and is still.

She flies out of the darkness screaming ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK and I barely have time to get my hands in front of my face. Two feet high, huge head, big narrow pointy nose, mouth like a goblin shark, obviously the wooden cross handle and the wires holding her up, because she’s a marionette. One of her hands holds her own cross handle. She latches on to my arm and we go backwards as her teeth sink deep and she starts chewing.

I swipe with the nippers but it’s hard to focus, and though I want to I can’t look away, and her teeth are dull wooden things, she’s not really chewing, just mashing up. Those real woman’s eyes keep rolling.

With her mouth full of my skin her screaming’s blunter now. Her free hand scratches around toward my face, but her arms are too short. I try to shake her off but she’s got me too good.

Sorry, world. I’ve got the one play.

I reach up with the nippers. I aim real careful.

She must sense their power coming, because she bends the arm holding the cross handle out of the way. I clip that, she’s got to use the other arm to hold the cross handle up. She’s a marionette, something’s got to rattle her. But I bought these special. If Borland knew what I was doing, she’d be super mad.

I mean, everyone will be super mad.

They took my money anyway—they locked me in a promise gate anyway—‘cause they all know Twelfth and Semple’s a suicide run, and nobody’s coming back.

I push Mrs. Marionette down with the arm she’s ruining, pin her weird little body with my thighs. She tries to swing the arm holding the cross handle away from the nippers. But I’m already committed, and she’s countering the wrong move.

I snag the other wires from the cross handle, and squeeze the nippers shut. The cross handle floats free in the air, sparks gathering around the flat wooden panels, and before they can dissipate I dart the nippers around the last wire and snip that one, too.

Her hand falls down.

Her jaws come loose.

The cross handle burns up in cobalt blues and dissonance, like harps crushed in an industrial press.

I let the nippers drop from my hand and press the ground beef wound on my other arm.

Mrs. Marionette scotches backwards away from me.

She stands up, of her own accord.

Her enormous head overbalances, she totters once to the left, two steps to the right. When she catches herself, her eyes swing around in their sockets before rotating to fix on me.

The marionette mouth opens wide. Bits of my skin and forearm muscle dangle from wooden teeth.

She screams ACK-ACK-ACK

She screams ACK

She cocks her head to the side, and those wet white eyes look at me, and from somewhere deep in the wooden body, her voice—her real voice—comes out. “You could have clipped my arm wires,” she purrs.

“I know,” I say. Wincing, as blood oozes between my fingers.

“Why did you set me free?”

“I’m not planning to be around for the consequences.”

Mrs. Marionette nods slowly. She takes a slow, jagged step forward.

I shouldn’t have dropped the nippers. But now that she’s not hanging from the cross handle, I guess they wouldn’t do any good.

“You would have tasted better,” she whispers, “when you were younger.”

“If I had a nickel for everyone who said that, I wouldn’t have any nickels, because holy shit that’s a messed-up thing to say.”

Mrs. Marionette turns to walk away.

“Everything has a price,” I call out.

She stops. “And?”

“The yellow salamander mirror.”

“The children’s prison.”

I shiver. “Help me find it.”

“You can’t find it, if you’re looking for it.”

“So help me not look for it.”


—she dances, head jerking side to side, arms waving around, the clack of her wooden body louder and louder, until it looks like she’s going to dance her whole body apart, and then she


“Okay, that was nice,” I say. “How does that—”

A hand grasps my shoulder. Its fingers are dry, and through my shirt they lacerate my skin with ten thousand little cuts. The hand picks me up—it’s impossibly strong—it lifts me into the air until my legs dangle. I swing an elbow with all the force I can muster but the impact lights up my nerves and I howl.

Mrs. Marionette bows, first to me, then whatever’s behind me.

“Thanks,” she says. Her jaws tremble, then snap, ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK. She races to the door, arms fluttering behind her, and then she’s gone.

I grab the fingers with my hand, and the skin’s dry, cracked, and

No, it’s not cracked.

It’s paper.

The hand tosses me and I ragdoll. I try to cradle my hurt arm when I land and roll, but I’m sure I got something in the messed-up bits.

I stand, and face it, and goddamn I didn’t spend enough money at Borland’s stall.

It’s the owner of Twelfth and Semple.

And I realize why no one comes back, when they break in.

It’s an Angel of the Executor.

Like a human, eight feel tall, rolled out of paper and stretched thin. Four arms, six wings, an elongated head with a ring of hooked prongs crowning its brow. Its legs look like they’re jointed at the knee, but it—shivers—in the air, and I know it can bend however it wants to, as long as the paper will fold. Words scroll across the pages in Times New Roman, in monospaced uneven typewriter ribbon, in bizarre sacred geometries, in pictograms and hieroglyphics, in clefs and manifolds and writing systems I could never have guessed would have existed.

Every book on every shelf vibrates as the Angel raises its four arms. The words on its body coalesce into an enormous black droplet of infinite volume, and a single thread spools out from its chest to write along its face in a simple manuscript hand:


Every breathe is dust mites and powdered vellum. “The—yellow salamander mirror,” I stammer.


“To—” I stop myself.

Calm down, Sanna, I think. Be specific. Offer, acceptance, consideration. The Executor is the Written Word.

“No,” I say. To buy myself some time.

Its head drops one-hundred eighty degrees on its neck. The thin ink line becomes an upside-down question mark. The line… moves, is animated, and I look away before I get too lost in its whorls.

Got to try not to tip my hand. “I want to touch it.”


“Are you bound here?”


“To the shop.”

Its wings flap. My lips split open with seventy paper cuts. NO.

“I can give you someone who’s writing unfair contracts.”

The head rights itself. The crown of hooks raises out of its head until like daggers or spikes they stretch a foot above the peak of its skull. UNFAIR.

I reach up to my bleeding lips. Yowch, that hurts. My finger comes away slick. “I want to touch the yellow salamander mirror. In return, I’ll tell you the name of the unfair dealer.”

A sheet of paper peels away from the Angel’s chest. It floats to me unperturbed by draft or breeze. I drag my bloody fingertip around. Halfway done, sweat drips from my forehead into my eyes. “The salamander has to be touching the glass.”

The paper lurches backward a foot. THIS IS NOT THE SAME OFFER.

“What else would you want?”

Its face is smooth, featureless, but I feel it stare me down, through the skin, through the bone, all the way to what makes me who I am.

A TERM OF SERVICE, the Angel says.

“How long?”

THE SALAMANDER AGAINST THE GLASS. Its four arms bring its four hands together, pressing palms close. NO LONGER THAN TWO SUTRAS.

My heart almost stops. “It’s almost guaranteed I won’t survive that.”


Stay calm. Stay calm.

I push the anxiety away, push the nerves away. I’ve got to be scared, resigned, for this to work. “It’s fair.”

The Angel of the Executor floats the paper back before me. SIGN, AND BE SIGNED.

I finish drawing in blood. “Where’s the mirror?” I say.


I turn around. Sure enough.

I almost stop breathing. Five feet tall, two feet wide, an oval of silvered glass, its frame not ornate but severe and decorated. Its two pedestal feet must weigh fifty pounds apiece. The yellow salamander statue, not marble or stone but something else no one could identify, rearing. It balances on hind legs and squat tail. It rests its front paws on the mirror’s surface. Its short snout doesn’t face me—it looks up—but I know it watches me.

I know it’s been watching me.

The mirror itself shows no reflections. It shows clouds, and two dark shadows, the shapes of kids really, two stupid kids, drawn in charcoal and screaming.

Move already, I tell my legs.

Move already, dammit.

I take three steps when it feels like all my bones start leaking blood. The Angel screams in the sound of shredding book-bindings and melting glue. I stagger, but I keep moving toward the mirror, because it’s all I have to do, and this is over.

The Angel screams louder and my marrow boils as the promise gate starts to bind that thing, instead of me.

It doesn’t have to work. I just have to reach the mirror—

The Angel roars instead. Ten billion years of anger. The promise gate snaps back over my soul and I fall down, which is a blessing, because a solid paper arm spears into the space I had been standing in.

YOU SIGNED IN BAD FAITH, the Angel says.

I roll on my back. Spots in my eyes, synapses shredded. “Not true,” I pant. “I gave you—the unfair dealer.”


I pull myself backward. A quick glance over my shoulder.

When I crawl, the mirror moves away from me. It maintains the distance.


“Seemed like the way you’d recognize him?” I try.


“So, his name’s Loney—”

The Angel looms over me. It’s so goddamn big, its wingspan must be twelve, thirteen feet. Its fingers end in infinite points. Each feather on each paper wing leaves a hole in the air.


I really didn’t want to do this.

But I’m out of options, and there’s one contract I can rely on.

One agreement left.

I raise my left hand. I press my ghost finger up to my lips, where the black wedding band touches the seventy cuts.

I say, “’Til death do us part.”

That thing I said, about not having a future?

Not strictly true.

I don’t have a future on this side of the yellow salamander mirror. Haven’t told anybody about that, not even Borland. I’ve come close, real close, when I get lonely and I start thinking—remembering—when I think about who I was, who we were, thinking about standing on the street corner, looking at the locked-up bookstore, Jeremy and me coming up with stupid dares, deflecting, more stupid dares, it getting later, until we settled on sneaking in and touching the yellow salamander mirror, like in the scary story everyone passed around in eighth grade.

I didn’t really give a shit about scary stories, or the mirror, or the store, for that matter. Or ghosts or magic or contracts.

I was fifteen, and I wanted to kiss him so bad, and I was so scared to do it, so we did anything else.

Fourteen years, eight months, eleven days later, I’m so goddamn close to getting back through.

When you know you’ve got some other option, it really frees you up to agree to whatever. Mortgage off your future, who cares?

Say you’re in a real jam, and the only way out is to, I don’t know. Offer yourself up as the living bride to an embodiment of violence and destruction. There may be no way to get out of that, no divorce or annulment.

Except a one-way jaunt across a mirror, but he doesn’t need to know about it, so…

…instead of being murdered in a rotting airplane hangar you wind up back-to-back with your new husband, and by the way, he’s made of smoke and ash and he kind of looks like he’s wearing a suit, or at least a tailored jacket, and some t-i-i-ght pants, and his eyes glow like amethysts in the right light, and it’s probably the near death experience talking, but he’s kind of hot?

And he’s got nice hair. It’s not really hair, again, ash and shadow and churning smoke, but it’s like a loose afro and it looks very good.

And from that point on, you have a ghost finger and a black wedding band.

And you don’t talk to him much, because when you call on his help, city blocks disappear in fire and blood.

And you don’t know if he’s strong enough to fight an Angel, but you know—somehow—that he loves you, and he’s going to try.

My husband erupts into the air between me and the Angel. He looks back at me, and the look on his face is something I know I won’t leave behind. Even when I cross the mirror.

Before the Angel speaks, he’s on him, a whirl of charcoal, embers, fists, sparks and strikes. The Angel shrinks back and slashes out with its wings. I can’t help it. I watch for—I don’t know how many heartbeats—as the two of them go at each other, titans, or two icebergs, melting pieces of themselves as they collide.

My husband spares half a second. One amethyst eye cracked and guttering. Go, he says, right into my heart.

I scramble up and run toward the mirror. With the Angel’s attention on my husband, it doesn’t flee from me. But the yellow salamander statue is inches from the glass. I put my shoulder behind it and shove, hard. The statue must be a hundred pounds if it weighs anything.

Go, my husband says, weaker, from farther away.

I look back.

The Angel’s got its claws in him, all four hands buried up to the last knuckles in his chest. The black wedding band on my finger starts to crumble. With tears falling down my cheeks and my heart exploding I shove the salamander against the glass.

’Til death—

The Angel rips my husband apart.

My ghost finger, the ring, they’re gone.

I don’t have any last words for the Angel. Nothing to say to it, no promises. Nothing but hate. It has to know what I’m going to do, anyway.

I touch the mirror.

“You okay?” Jeremy says.

Jeremy says, and I look and we’re across the street from that goddamn bookstore, and he’s young—so young I kind of feel bad about how hot he is—and I look down and I should definitely have put a jacket on, and I look at my hands

My hand

My nails are turquoise, because—because my dad painted them for me. He said he wanted to, he said he knew this wasn’t a date, but he did that thing where he studiously didn’t smile, but I knew he was happy, because a person can’t hide their eyes.

He painted all ten of my fingernails.

“Hey,” Jeremy says. “Sanna?”

“Yeah,” I say, finally. “Yeah. I’m okay.”

He hooks a finger toward the bookstore. “This—this was, uh, stupid, right?” He puts his hands in his pockets. His pants are very tight. I can’t believe I didn’t notice it the first time. God, he’s just as nervous as I am. Was?

There’s butterflies in my stomach, a thunderstorm of butterflies.


I look over at Twelfth and Semple. Just long enough to wipe the lip gloss off with the back of my hand.

“I’m sorry, this was stupid,” he says again.

I turn back toward him.

I grab the front of his shirt, I pull him close. He smells—

He smells perfect.

I kiss him.

When I let him go, he tries not to smile, but he can’t hide his eyes. “So, uh… can, uh, this be a date?”

I grin up at him. “Yeah. Yeah, this can be a date.”

He nods. His hair waves around on top of his head, he presses his lips together as he looks at his feet. “Cool, cool.” He raises his eyes to mine. “I think I first wanted to kiss you in like, second grade.” He laughs a little. “Kinda wish I had. Not getting that time back, huh?”

I raise up on tiptoe and kiss him again. When I’m done, I whisper against his lips, “I kinda wanted to marry you in second grade.”

This time he kisses me. He threads his fingers through mine. “’Til death do us part,” he says, melodramatically.

He squeezes too tight, it pinches a nerve in my hand. I shake loose, cursing. I reach down to rub my palm.

My left ring finger is a red mist with a black wedding band.

Jeremy raises his left hand. A black band swirls around his finger, in ash and charcoal and embers.

“What—” I start.

He quiets me with another kiss.

“For our second date,” he says. “Want to burn a bookstore to the ground?”

“I do,” I say. “I do.” I grab him, I hug him tight. “I really do.”

the end.

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