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Life is a hornets’ nest. If I don’t poke it, it won’t sting me. But now I’ve got hornets everywhere. Not literally, which is unfortunate because a literal hornets’ nest in my studio could be my get out of jail free card. I would kill for anything even remotely hornet-adjacent right now. When I agreed to this fiasco, Open Studios was shrouded in the mists of an unimaginable future, five whole months away. Now it’s here, and the sunlight that slants through my north-facing windows throws into brutal relief every reason I should not allow the general public into my space: bits of colored tin on every surface, gouges in the wood table where I eat my sad little solo meals, clothing slouched around an overflowing hamper, holes in the wall where I neglected to spackle after taking nails out. “Breakfast?” Jessie makes it sound like a question, but it’s a command. I put two breakfast bars in the toaster and push the knob down. I’m not a painter, but I can’t (won’t) show the mixed media pieces I’ve built compulsively for the last six years, so Jessie’s helping me hang paintings. And by “helping me hang,” I mean she’s hammering nails into the wall and putting canvases up. I’m pushing the toaster knob. “Pop-Tarts are not food!” Hazel’s in my sleeping loft rifling through my dresser. I think my black shift is arty and vaguely French, but Hazel says it makes me look like a burlap sack. “They’re not Pop-Tarts.” I consult the box. “They’re Fruitopia Bars. From the health food store. They’re health food.” “Oh, Mia.” Hazel sighs theatrically and steps to the edge of the loft, holding a pair of pants. “How about these?” “No,” Jessie says. “Those make her look like Charlie Chaplin.” “More like Billie Eilish.” Which is fresh, right? The toaster pops. “Who wants a Fruitopia Bar?” No one but me, I guess. I take a bite. It’s delicious. “Remind me why you’re doing Open Studios?” Jessie asks. “Because Axiom told me to.” “Do you do everything Axiom says?” “Of course.” Is that even a question? Axiom is an important sculptor, the only successful artist at Potrero Studios. Mia the Mouse does not say no to Axiom. Hazel descends and hands me an armful of black fabric. “These were the best I could find.” It’s a pair of leggings and a long-sleeved tunic that barely covers my ass. “No.” “Just try it, Mia,” Jessie says, sounding tired of me. I don’t blame her. I’m annoying. Jessie is my girl guide, a salty mountain of don’t-mess-with-me who is somehow, magically, my friend, even though I constantly mess with her. “It’s okay not to look like a waif from a silent movie,” Hazel says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with waifs. I’m pro-waif.” I change and stand in front of the big mirror by the door. “I look like a mime.” I tug at the hem of the tunic, trying to cover a potentially terminal case of camel toe. “We just need to zhuzh it up.” Jessie digs in my workbench and comes back with a red cord, which she ties around my waist. “Now I look like a gift for a Goth.” Note to self: trademark Gifts for Goths. “I need another ribbon to cover this.” I point to the camel toe. Jessie flips me off. Hazel grabs my hands. “Take a deep breath.” She breathes in, puffing out her chest. I breathe in and hold it, returning her intense stare. “Now breathe out slowly, slowly.” Hazel is always trying to improve herself, and she’s ever hopeful she can fix me, too. Ha! “Mia, be here now. Can you do that?” I’d rather be literally anywhere else. “Sure.” My leg jiggles out of control, a nervous tic, and I knee her in the groin. She yelps and jumps back. “Sorry. Sorry!” Jessie’s phone buzzes and she dashes out and returns with a small ball of effervescent joy. “I asked Greg to drop her here. We have a playdate at 11:30. Hope that’s okay.” It’s more than okay. I bend down as Jessie’s daughter throws herself into a hug. “Kayla-Roo!” “Mi-Mi-Mia!” Kayla burrows into my shoulder, a squirming jumble of yellow and pink, smelling like chocolate milk and cinnamon. I breathe her in. “Are you okay?” she asks, her kid radar unerring. “Better now.” “Of course,” she says with more gravitas than a five-year-old should be allowed. “Open Studios will be awesome because I’m here.” Over the next hour, with all four of us working, the rest of the paintings get hung, cookies get put out for guests, the stray clothes disappear, and Kayla leads us in a K-Pop conga line (my favorite part of the morning). At 11:10 am, I prop the door wide, hiding the “Studio 3” in cracked, gold peel-N-stick lettering and the shadows underneath where I can’t completely expunge “Mia Lieberman, Multimedia Artist.” Jessie and Kayla bump me from behind. “Excuse me,” Kayla says. I step to block her and she runs into my backside, giggling. “We have to go. Kayla’s playdate.” Oh, right. “Come back later?” Jessie shrugs. “Busy day. No promises.” At least Hazel — oh no, she’s putting on her coat. “Where are you going?” “Naked meditation in Dolores Park.” How am I still thrown by Hazel’s choice of self-improvement activities? “Naked — wait. Won’t you get arrested for public indecency?” “It’s not indecent. It’s transcendent.” She gives me namaste, followed by a tight squeeze that’s over far too quickly. “Love you.” After Hazel leaves, the emptiness feels immense. I prop myself on an uncomfortably high metal stool (every art studio must have one, so I do, but why?) and await my fate with all the joy of a figure in a Bosch painting screaming from the seventh rung of hell. # Open Studios is blessedly uneventful for 49 minutes. I’m almost bored enough to wish for a visitor. My wish is granted when a guy about my age, so 29, give or take, walks in. This is it. My first chance to humiliate myself. Oh boy. Even at midday, the winter sun casts weird shadows in my space, so my visitor is all perpendicular angles and straight lines, very minimalist, but also built, the outlines of his muscles visible under his tight jeans and the long-sleeved tee stretched over his broad shoulders. He carries himself with a fluid grace I rarely see in men. He strikes me as a dancer, though none of the dancers I know could afford the designer jeans and fancy sneakers he wears. “Hello,” he says, looking directly at me. His voice is a rich tenor. I could listen to that voice for hours. Days. Years. I’m smitten. “Hello,” I croak back, trying (and failing) to play it cool. He turns to examine my paintings and I examine him. He’s tall and (this is what slays me) has long bangs that swoop across square-framed black glasses, a cross between Clark Kent and a manga hero. He’s too cool to smile but, even turned down slightly at the corners, his lips look eminently kissable. I want him. The thought startles me. I don’t date or even hook up. Of course, there are the idle crushes, the erotic fantasies, but no feels for an actual human standing five feet from me. I slide down from my stool and stand too close to him to be socially appropriate. He smells like eucalyptus with a whiff of something else. Cleaning products? Maybe he works as a janitor. A hot, rich janitor. “What do you think?” I ask him. “Of you or the art?” His eyes are intense, deep brown irises blazing through the distortion of corrective lenses. I can’t look away. “Of the paintings.” And by paintings, I mean me. He frowns, and there’s the cutest little furrow between his eyebrows. I reach up to trace it with my finger but stop just in time. “I think the artist is more interesting than the art.” He looks at my lips as he says it and my sad little mouse heart races so fast I think it might spin out of my chest. I don’t know what’s happening but I’m here for it. “Mee-ah!” There is no good time for Samira Abdo to come to my studio, but this is the absolute worst. The contender for Most Kissable Lips in San Francisco whips his head toward the door and the moment is lost. I manage to arrange my face into a smile by the time a familiar head of honey brown curls bounces through the door. Barely. “Samira!” Even without the unfortunate timing, I wouldn’t be happy to see Samira, not because she’s not a nice person (she’s the nicest) but because she's everything I’m not: outgoing, gorgeous, a successful working artist. She’s the only member of my MFA cohort who kept in touch after I cratered out of the program, and I wish she wouldn’t. Samira has a way of looking at you when you talk like she really sees you and her eyes sparkle when her perfect, heart-shaped mouth curves into a smile. She's the most likable person I’ve ever met, and she never stops reaching out, even though I don’t reciprocate. I hate her. She dances over to hug me as if we’re best friends and she smells like honey and fresh oranges, because of course she does. I’m surprised a flock of bluebirds doesn’t flutter around her head. Samira eyes my paintings, walking from one to another and I get a sinking feeling in my chest. “These are…nice.” She damns me with faint praise. “But is this all you’re showing? Where is your other work, your constructions?” “I don’t do those anymore,” I lie. Samira turns to me, alarmed. “Why not?” “You know why not.” My dentist has been on me about grinding my teeth. She should pay my next dental bill. I see memory flood her face. She opens her mouth, but before she can speak, Dreamy Guy says, “Do you mean these?” He’s opened the top drawer of an ancient dresser I use to store art supplies. I stashed my other work in there, the pieces I don’t show anyone, not even Hazel and Jessie. He and Samira peer in. I wish I could melt through the paint-splattered floorboards into the San Francisco sewer system. Being carried to the ocean on a river of effluent would be better than this. Samira picks one up. “Do you mind?” Of course I mind, but I don’t stop her. It’s a piece I just finished, a ragged little Franken-dollhouse room made of colored tin and wire. Inside, tiny tin figures eat and dream. A thought bubble hanging over one says, “I’m never getting out of here.” The only reason I still make these pieces is I can’t stop. As art, they’re worthless. Someday, they’ll all go into the dumpster, but, for now, I guess they’re a kind of therapy. And I need a lot of therapy. Just ask Hazel. Samira turns the piece around with delicate, caramel-skinned fingers. “It’s amazing, Mia. Why aren’t you showing this?” I’m sweating under my tunic, even though it’s freezing because my studio has 20-foot ceilings and a wall of windows that make it impossible to heat unless I want to hand my entire paycheck to PG&E. “It’s not for sale,” I say. I take the piece from her roughly and shove it into the dresser. Something snaps, but I close the drawer before any of us can see what it is. I’ll deal with that later. Right now, I wish they would both leave. “I agree with Samira. It’s your best work,” Dreamy Guy says. “Well, you don’t know me, and a lot of people don’t agree, including me,” I say, dying a little inside. My declaration is followed by a moment of supreme awkwardness when no one moves or knows what to say. Then Samira holds out a hand to Dreamy Guy. “Samira Abdo. And this is Mia Lieberman.” “Justin Wu. Nice to meet you.” He smiles politely as he shakes Samira’s hand, but when he turns to me, he looks like he’s calculating how much he could get for my organs and sizing me for a body bag. Which makes me think, Dismemberment is cheaper — you can use trash bags. Except I didn’t think that last bit. I have a bad habit of blurting my most random thoughts instead of keeping them tucked behind my teeth where they belong. Justin drops my hand like it’s a hot potato. Samira looks bemused. This isn’t her first rodeo with my quirks. She probably thinks I have an unusual form of Tourette’s. Maybe I do. “Too many true crime podcasts.” I babble, desperate to change the subject. “There’s a dance studio next door. You should check it out.” Justin’s body is angled toward the door, ready for escape, but when I mention Studio 4, his spine stiffens. He narrows his eyes, looking even more murderous than when he shook my hand. Jesus. He really might be a serial killer. “Nice to meet you.” His tone makes it clear what he really means is You’re dead to me. Hopefully not literally. He stomps out of my studio without taking me prisoner and murdering me and, when I hear the lobby door click, I start to breathe again. “Well, Mia.” Oh yeah. Samira’s still here. “I think there’s a market for your constructions.” She hands me a card and I let it slip through my fingers onto the floor behind my back. “Please call me.” The worst thing about Samira is that she genuinely wants me to call her. The absolute toad. After she leaves, people drift in and out but none of them are gorgeous janitor/axe murderers, which is a relief and also oddly disappointing. It starts to rain toward the end of the afternoon, the drops a faint drumbeat on the metal roof. I like the sound of rain — God knows it’s rare enough these days — but it steals the light and leaves me feeling empty as Cindy Sherman’s boots. I count the minutes till I can close the door on this dismal day.
Prologue 13 Years Ago 7:08 PM Liz Liz hated sunsets. And the late September sky was already awash in bruised hues, outlining rows of gnarled apple trees against the slash of dark horizon. She knew most people enjoyed the colorful blurring of day into night, but those same people had clearly never hunted—or been hunted—by dragons before. They were deadliest at dusk, when mottled dragon scales became nearly invisible in the riot of color. Somehow, creatures with wingspans larger than most commercial aircrafts were rendered almost undetectable. Liz was hot beneath her fatigues; sweat pooling at the base of her spine as she lay flat, propped up on her elbows, rifle pressed into her left shoulder. She had orders, like the half dozen other strike teams peppering the ridge overlooking the valley on either side of her. Whatever they were looking for tonight was supposed to be big—big enough to warrant pulling most of her class out of training for a rare demonstration. She blew out a slow, measured breath. “We probably won’t see anything anyway,” Joseph grumbled. Her older brother sounded listless, agitated even. She settled deeper into the shadow of the nearest apple tree, peering through her scope, ignoring the sour smell from rotting apples strewn about her. “You ok?” she asked instead. He sat just a few feet from her, back pressed against some of the large rocks that formed their cover, rifle laying placidly in his lap. His gaze drifted down into the valley too, but he didn’t look happy about it—also unlike him. Joe loved the hunt, and he’d been waiting for an opportunity like this his whole life. But his hazel eyes were faintly glazed with ... boredom? Worry? She was used to him being assured—the oldest, the best of them. Her skin tingled, and she shifted her weight nervously, repositioning her sights. She concentrated on her elbows sinking into the damp earth, the sound of the wind rustling leaves around them, and the steadiness of her own breathing. The orchard trees were getting murkier by the second between the dark and fog that seemed to be drifting in. She frowned. The fog was moving in fast. Too fast. Something snapped to their left, and their bodies simultaneously sharpened with motion. Liz swung her legs around and focused her rifle, wincing as her headset crackled to life in a too-loud gurgle of static. Her hand flew up to her ear to silence the garbled commands struggling to coming through. Static flared painfully, and then the line went dead. “What the—“ She looked back, and paused. Her brother’s face had formed a sort of wordless question, eyes wide and mouth parted slightly. “Joe?” He launched to his feet without a word—and without his gun—bolting through the tangle of branches behind them in a frenzied burst of motion. She didn’t wait. She should have waited. He’d always been faster than her—damn him—but she ran anyway, ducking fruit laden branches and slipping on slick, smushed apple beneath her boots. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet. They were trained to cover ground quickly and quietly, but Joe was crashing through branches and trees. They might as well have been shining a spotlight on their location. It didn’t make any sense, and the full realization of what that meant slammed into her as she rounded the trunk of a particularly large tree and barreled right into Joe’s broad back. Siren Song. Her brother was standing in the middle of a small clearing, face turned skyward, gaze cloudy. They’d always been decently matched for height and strength, but even as she threw both arms around him and shoved him towards the treeline, he scrambled away from her. “I’m here,” Joe shouted upward, the fog curling around them. “I’m sorry,” he said, but not to her. She tried to wrestle him towards cover, ignoring panic sluicing through her at the noise, at Joe’s Siren-addled brain, at the way the orchard seemed to writhe and breathe around them with every sound they made. “Don’t listen to them—Joe, it’s a Siren Song.” Only one kind of creature sent out a Siren Song, robbing you of reason right before the kill. She raised the butt of her rifle, prepared to knock him out if it meant saving him—but then he was looking at her, eyes clear and confused. “Liz?” he asked hoarsely. She opened her mouth to respond, but never got the chance. Pain exploded above her knee as something big and sharp pierced her leg. Her vision went white – shit, shit, SHIT as she hit the ground hard and felt a sudden warmth saturating her pant leg. And she was bleeding …. dragging … dying … against pebbles and something was pulling her towards the trees. She writhed and clawed at exposed roots but she couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t catch hold of anything as her nails split and fingertips muddled, couldn’t wriggle around to see what had a hold of her, even though she knew—she knew. Blood streamed down her thigh and pooled at her stomach, fire streaking through her veins, as she managed to finally stare into the face of a dragon too large to have crept up silently behind her. But there he was, his dark snout streaked with her blood and his toothy grin clamped firmly around her thigh. Green eyes the size of saucers gleamed in the coming dark. He hoisted her up several feet into the air before she even had a moment to draw a dizzy breath, acid burning in her throat. She’d dropped her gun. She reached weakly for the Dragonsbreath grenade attached to her belt. She looked down the nose of a grinning marbled grey and black dragon, whose pointed snout and hand-sized teeth were sunk firmly into her leg as he beat his powerful wings and rose into the air. Class 3. Young Male. He rumbled in his throat, but he hadn’t roasted her, which either meant he couldn’t manage a strong enough flame to reignite his sparks so quickly, or he didn’t want her dead … yet. She groaned as she tried to reach up and beat at his nose, gasping as his bite tightened, blurring her vision. She was going to throw up. This was all wrong. Her brain still rattled off the stats anyway: Wingspan 30 feet. Controls weather patterns. And, in a moment of blinding clarity, she realized: you’re too small. You’re not the dragon we’re looking for. The dragon rumbled again, in a gurgle that almost sounded like laughter. She hung five feet off the ground—ten—as her reaching fingers finally closing around the Dragonsbreath. Her hands shook as she met the Class 3’s glare—her fingers slick with her own blood as she yanked it free and pulled the pin. Green eyes narrowed. “Boom.” she hissed. All of her was screaming—burning—as she wrenched her arm back and hurled it towards his stupid grinning face. B O O M. She hit the ground hard, gasping. She could hear the furious roar of the Class 3 overhead, watched as the Dragonsbreath’s green fire climbed up the side of his maw, the acid burning through scale and bone as it raced up snout to spine. She watched until he drifted out of focus, the glow of the green fire illuminating the frantic beating of his wings as he tried to escape the flames. Breathtaking. She just watched the dragon burn, his agonized screeching splitting the night. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. She lay gasping, aching everywhere—her ears ringing. She blinked once, twice, trying to clear her head as the Class 3 drifted hazily out of focus. Her limbs were leaden, and her hazy vision was abruptly replaced by the alarmed face of her brother. “Liz? Liz?” His dark hair was askew, eyes wet and wide. She’d never seen him cry. His hand was heavy on her thigh, pinching and tearing; his face tightened in horror, “Your leg—” She didn’t know specifics: specifically where she was hurt, specifically where fire coursed through her, specifically where residual Dragonsbreath acid was eating through her own clothing. Everywhere was pain and fire—acid and burning nausea building in her chest, and she would be sick ... she would be sick and— He pressed a finger to his mic, calling for help that roared to dullness in her ears. She wouldn’t be conscious for long. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, to her this time, yes. She tried to grasp the hand that had wrapped around her own, his fingers tightening. Joseph was screaming again for help, for backup, for anybody, and then there was another shattering roar, one she felt as much as heard through her entire body. But it didn’t matter. Joseph never even saw it coming. In one snap of too-large teeth, his entire torso disappeared in a maw that emerged from the fog and engulfed. Dragon saliva hissed as it sprayed the ground. Teeth the length of her forearm, three times bigger than the Class 3’s, missing her by inches. Its immeasurable form darkened the too-bright sky—incomprehensible. Impossible. No matter how much she tried after, she couldn’t recall what happened after. Did she reach for him? For her gun? Her radio? Did she scream? She must have screamed. Did she just lay there and wait to die? She wished she knew. Would it make a difference if she knew? All she could recall was how her brother’s legs had dangled as they drifted, almost lazily, before disappearing into a muddied swirl of a sherbet-colored sky. She didn’t remember the moment when he ceased to be. She couldn’t seem to forget when she realized he was gone.