And I bow as I step onto the dance floor, and the strings strain, and the bodies around us move. Bodies of abusers and saviors. Rose dances with Olsen, Destiny with Tiger. The music plays, we all twirl, and I take each of the next stories out onto the floor. The waltz is the most proper. The waltz has the arms wide, the circle, the spinning. The waltz doesn’t pull in close and breathe in the ear like I do with my wife. The waltz doesn’t get “tangled up and tango on.” The waltz holds back. It looks into the eye, holds at a distance, and the waltz appraises. The waltz appreciates.
There’s a scream across the battlefield as a hundred thousand warriors of bullies and abusers roar hatred in my direction. The Round Table lines up behind me. They bang sword on shield. You are about to read about the women standing along my side. They form the front ranks now. And when the horns blow and I collide with my abusers, it will be The Shieldmaidens waltzing with my enemies and dancing beside me as the blood and the hate flies.
I introduce you now to the women of my life and my past. I introduce you now to The Shieldmaidens.
Gangster but never a Thug.
Humble but always a Queen.
When you are talking about K, you have to keep these things in mind. Also keep in mind that when I came out of my darkness in 2004, and Bekah and I had put it all back together, Bekah’s entire family was done with me. Some were openly hostile. Some quietly resentful. But the first visit I had with K and Patron, Bekah’s grandparents, after we got back together and were going to get married, it was K who welcomed me back into the family. It was K who took me in with almost no proof that it would not fall apart again. And it was K who began to slip me tiny bits of encouragement by selling out her husband.
Now she loved him like no woman has ever loved a man. She was loyal to that man since they met, when he was in eighth grade and she was in seventh, but K also knew I was aware of that fact that Patron hated me and she wanted me to know every time he started to come around that it was happening slowly, but eventually Patron would forgive me.
Betrayal number one.
One day she is having a conversation with her husband about her grandchildren. He is trying to decide if they will be okay financially going into their future. He starts with Bliss.
“Bliss is an engineer. Her husband is an engineer. They will be fine,” he says as he reads the closed captioning on his St. Louis Cardinal’s game. His team is winning and he is in a good mood. He loves to talk about his grandkids when he is in a good mood so he is musing.
“Plan and Pear are both professors in Math. People are always gonna need to know math. They are going to make it, no question.”
Plan and Pear will fight to make it work for years, but in the end they part ways. The strain is too much, or they can’t see eye to eye. Or maybe it was never supposed to be in the first place. I don’t know, and even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you because that relationship is none of your business. Can you just listen to the old man, please? We are about to get to something funny.
“Haystack is a worker. That kid doesn’t stop. He can build anything. Raise anything. He can drive anything and as we watch, that kid just continues to climb. Soon we won’t even be able to see him. His wife is a worker and they are going to make it just fine. It’s all going to work out for them.” He looks at K and nods. “Him I don’t worry about.”
“Flower and Doc are both medical professionals. Doc is a family therapist. Flower a Nurse Practitioner. There will always be sick people and crazy people. There is definitely no shortage of crazy people.” I do not know if the man was thinking about me at that moment. I kinda hope he was. “They are set I think. Don’t you think?” He looks at K.
“Lot of crazy sick people in the world,” she says.
“Bekah has that art degree and she is a graphic designer. She runs that business out of her house and she is in marketing. She will always have customers. I think she will be fine, and Jesse…” He sips his coffee and shakes his head. He has for just a minute here forgotten all about Pujols and the fact that he is up to bat. He has forgotten that he is out of coffee and at that moment he is weighing everything he knows about me. “Jesse, I don’t know, I…” God he wants to say bad things but he sees the way I talk and he hears about the books and he just sighs. “Well, Jesse could make nothing or more money than all of them combined. God, I don’t know. That kid is impossible to get a handle on.”
When K tells me quietly from the kitchen that Patron has said this, she smiles. She pats my hand and winks at me. And in that moment, she gives me a bit of hope.
Betrayal number two.
It’s years later. The Teller Family is living in Milwaukee and Patron and K are driving back to Waynesville after a visit. Tobin was just born and they have seen another great grandchild in their lifetime. They are both speaking happily for a long time until she sees the face set across his features, and he falls silent.
All married couples know the face their spouse gets when they have something to say but don’t want to. Often the spouse will coax it out of them, knowing they need to talk about it. But this is not how this couple works. When she sees that he is about to spit something out he is not wanting to say, she falls quiet and waits. She sits and she watches him grip the wheel and whisper to himself. She sees him finally nod and explode.
“Well that Jesse is just, well you can say anything you want to say about him, but he is a damn good father and a damn good husband,” Patron said.
Yeah, she threw him under the bus on that one, too. In her kitchen, sitting on her stool as I leaned against the island eating an odd sandwich, she told me that story, and again the sly smile. Again the pat of the hand and the wink.
In 2013, we had written a large number of books and were content that we knew how to do the job. We were happy with our use of prose and our story building skills and we began the rewriting phase. We pulled out Liefdom and read a chapter. We opened a blank document and rewrote it from nothing. Like this, we made our way through the book and reimagined every word. We had years of novel writing behind us now, and we started all over again and created a wholly new reading experience.
When that book was how we wanted it, we pulled out Chaste and did the same thing. But Chaste was 776 pages. It was a considerably bigger job, and the writing was dark. Chaste is a horrifying book filled with hideous characters and darker deeds. The prologue for Chaste is so corrupt, so vile that the writing of it made me sick. I was thrashing and I needed something to get me through.
I decided on a trophy. It is a tradition around here that when I write a book I get a trophy. The book will not see print for so long that I will not see any reward for my work, so I get to choose one object as a trophy for that project. When I was in the depths of Chaste I decided I needed a skull ring. I began shopping and talking about it all the time.
I would find a ring that I liked online, share it to my Facebook page, and ask for people’s opinion. I got a lot of people following my quest and a lot of people telling me this was the one or that was not going to work. As I searched and as I trudged through the swamp of Chaste, I went to visit Patron and K, and they took us out to dinner.
While Patron talked to Bekah about how well Flower and her husband were doing, I looked across the booth at K and said, “You know, when I finish this book I’m working on, I’m going to buy myself a skull ring.”
“A skull ring.” I touched the tip of my forefinger to my thumb, showing a huge circle, and I held it to my knuckle. “A big fat steel skull ring so massive and so gnarly that it will scare everyone away.”
She chuckled to herself and shook her head. “Well, won’t that be nice.”
“If you’re good to me, I will buy you one, too,” I said.
She nearly spit her beer. She laughed so hard she made Patron stop bragging about Flower, which was nearly impossible, and he stared at her. Everyone asked her what was so funny, but she just looked across the table at me and through her laughing she said, “Well, won’t that be nice.” Red faced and shaking.
Now eight months later, it is Christmas and you guys can guess what is under the tree for her. I got the smallest one I could find. It was polished steel with beady eyes and no lower jaw. It had fangs, and it even gave me pause.
When she opened it in a room of at least twenty family members, she broke into gales of laughter. Everyone fell silent and every one stared at the vicious thing in her hand. They all looked at me and I winked at her.
No one understood. No one could. This was just us. This was how me and this amazing woman dealt with each other.
When the presents were all tore and drifted off, I went to her and she hugged me, told me I was crazy and she smacked my arm. Then she put it on and it fit her forefinger. There is a picture of her and I side by side with clenched fists. Two gangsters of two very different kinds, both sporting skull rings. Each loving the other.
It was a few years later when my grandmother died. Every one of my family was going to be there. Rose, Ball, Wrath, Grasp, Tigress and Lioness. So many more. I was walking into a massacre of emotions and attacks, and when I looked across the parking lot, here came Patron and K.
Patron had gotten past most of it after he saw the kind of father I was, and though he still didn’t understand me, he had accepted that he didn’t have to. I went to them and hugged them. Adam was in charge back then, and he thanked them for coming.
K held up her fist showing me the highly polished skull ring with the beady eyes and the fangs, and she snarled. “So they know I’m with you.”
When she died, a section of my heart went cold. I will never get over her passing. She brought me back when the rest of the family was done with me. Believed in me when no one else did. And she backed my play, every time, all the time.
When she died, I went in ready for a fight. I was getting that ring back no matter who I had to shout down to do it. But when I walked into the funeral parlor, I was met almost at the door and told to go see Vigil right away.
He handed me that skull ring and he said, “This is for you. We wanted you to have it in case you want to leave it in the coffin with her.”
I stared at it and I burst into tears. I hugged Vigil because I knew that in that moment he knew what she meant to me and what I meant to her. I tried to leave it with her, I really did. But in the end when I tried it on, it fit my pinky finger.
When I am going into high stress situations I wear that ring. Because she wants them all to know that she is with me.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 3: The Keep.