It is 1998 and Micah comes home and Melanie’s sitting on the couch.
She’s wearing a suit and she’s wearing shades and she’s got a nametag on.
It says, “Melanie.”
Just Melanie. It doesn’t say anything about being cunning or beloved of the gods.
She lowers her shades.
She looks at him.
Her eyes are evil, they make him flinch, but they’re otherwise identical to his own.
He puts a bag of groceries down by the door. He stands there numbly.
“Hi there,” she says to him. “What’s your name?”
[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER ONE]
October 31, 1998
Liril hasn’t told him what to do.
Without Liril telling him what to do, he’s just a boy. He’s just a boy who wants to protect her from the evils of the world, but not one who necessarily can.
“I might accidentally flay your soul and stretch it on the birch trees,” Micah says. He tries to make it sound casual, like something Liril’s warned him not to do. “I mean, I don’t want to, I wouldn’t defy Central like that, it’s just, you know, something that could accidentally happen if I forget the alchemical equation I’m holding in my head.”
“That’s a fine trick,” Melanie concedes.
“Where is she?” Micah asks.
“You know,” says Melanie, “I could have sworn there was an order out to have you brought in and tortured. As opposed to standing there, all asking questions with your mouth, and things.”
“It was a terrible misunderstanding,” Micah says. “I showed the last visitor my correct report card and the matter resolved in its entirety. Also, you mean ‘re-oriented’ or something. Torture’s too explicit a word.”
He takes off his coat. He hangs it by the door.
“Can I get you anything?” he asks.
His eyes are scanning the house, looking for signs of Liril. But her frankness or her error—he’s not sure which—has reassured him.
“Like, if you really need a sandwich, or a penny, or a knife in your eye, or something,” he says, “I could totally oblige.”
“Really?” she says. She sounds delighted. “You’d do that for me?”
“See a penny, pick it up,” he assures her. “All that day you’ll have good luck. I’ve got . . . like a thousand. If I had a nickel for every penny I had, I’d convert them into pennies and win the economy forever. “
“Your name, then,” she says.
She tilts her head. “From formica?”
“That’s two prepositions in a row,” Micah says. “I can’t understand your crazy monster language.”
“Melanie,” she says.
“Yes,” he agrees. “It would be.”
She looks down at her nametag. She blushes a little. “Yes.”
“I’m not going with you,” Micah says. “I’ve decided that you’re holding Liril and Priyanka hostage, but that she has a plan that requires me to pretend that you don’t, refuse to deal, and do everything I can think of to oppose you.”
“Bah,” Melanie says. “Your report card recorded an erroneously high decorum.”
“I had a lot of extra credit,” Micah says. “Field work and the like.”
“Does that really work?” Melanie says. Her tone is genuinely curious. “I mean, just deciding what you want to do and assuming that Liril must support it?”
“No,” he says. “It’s completely ridiculous.”
“It’s just,” he says, “so is listening to anything you say. So it’s kind of a wash. You know?”
He sighs. He looks tired. He trudges over to a couch and he sits down. “What do you want?” he asks.
She smiles briefly.
“You should come work for us,” she says.
She tosses him a nametag. It’s blank. He catches it. Then he flinches and throws it from him like it’s caught fire in his hands.
“I’m not interested,” Micah says.
“The monster’s weak,” she says. “He talks like he left you here on purpose. He talks like he’s still got a plan for that girl Jane. But I saw him when he came back from here. He was hurt. He was frayed. You got acid on his heart and soul, my boy, with whatever trick you pulled.”
“I renamed him,” Micah says.
Melanie closes her eyes for a moment. Her face is perfectly still. Then she opens them up again. “Snotgargler?” she suggests.
He shakes his head.
He looks away.
“The important thing,” she says, “is that he’s weak. I could take him. If I had your help. I could beat him. If I had your help.”
“It’s amazing,” he says. “You’re not even trying to sound like you believe that.”
Her voice is wounded.
“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “It’s an awesome plan.”
And as suddenly as that it crashes in on him that she is hollow; that she is broken; that she has a certain shelter in her heart, and cracks therein, that he remembers from years ago. He is looking at a crucible.
He doesn’t want the pity in his face to show. He turns away.
“Oh, don’t you dare,” she says. “Don’t you fucking dare. It was only twice. He’s been used more than that himself.”
He clenches his fist.
A jolt of humor washes through her. He can feel it in the tides of the emotions of the room. It’s slipped from her, whatever is wrong inside her, and she’s laughing at the world instead.
“Hey,” she says. “Hey. How do you separate a monster from his charges?”
He shakes his head.
He ought to tell her, he thinks. Anything that hurts the monster can redound only to his good. But he doesn’t trust any impulse or reason whatsoever that would tell this woman more than she already seems to know.
“Hey,” she repeats. “How do you separate a monster from his charges?”
“No,” he tells her. I won’t.
“You take away his credit card,” she beams.
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die
There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
It’s about an hour later. They’ve had tea. Liril’s almost home from trick-or-treating, so Melanie suspects, and so she rises to her feet.
“The offer is good,” she says, quietly.
He shakes his head.
“It’s just a nametag,” she says. “Pick it up. Put it on. Come with me. We can kill the bastard and live happily ever after without dying even once.”
“I’m not going to Central,” Micah says. “I’d just end up like you.”
“Ouch,” she says. She shakes her hand, pretending that it’s burnt. Then she goes out.
He cleans up the teacups.
He looks at the nametag.
I bet I could use this, he thinks. I bet it could give me some kind of strength.
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me
Liril gets home and he is rocking, hissing, clutching tight at his inflamed and swollen hand.