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Axiom: A Cardinal-Wood Story (excerpt)

By A.R. Milton





1 Enter The Pit!




Once the initial greetings concluded, Kyle retook his post at the podium and Zander took Julia to the dining area. Zander gave his cousin the do’s and don’ts of working at The Pit. He listed the fifty-two drink specials she’d have to memorize, one for each week of the year. Sunday brunch featured them all. He mentioned which employees were safe to talk to and the ones she should just nod to and keep it moving (“Bobby Velle, aka BO Bobby, can talk your ears off with explosive breath and even more offensive body odor. Stay clear.”). He concluded with the boss, Bianca, like most employee-to-employee introductions do on the first day on the job, but didn’t get past “don’t get fooled by her smile” before pausing at the sight of a drop of blood running out of Julia’s nose.

“Here, take this.” Zander passed Julia a napkin from his apron. “I can’t believe you haven’t visited here once or that Uncle Quincy never brought you here himself. We always came to visit y’all: Hawaii, Japan—Germany was the shit.”

Julia took the napkin and wiped away all traces of blood. “The most I saw him was during those mini family reunions. He never spoke highly about this place and, whenever I asked him why we didn’t visit, he would just say I’d get the chance when I was older. And here I am as foretold by the modern-day prophet, my father.”

“Yeah, well, as a Cardinal-Wood native, he should’ve warned you about the nosebleeds.”

“He gave me some cotton plugs and told me to keep them close. Nothing else. I forgot them in the kitchen on my way here.” Julia threw the used napkin in the trash behind the bar. “Dad or Google couldn’t answer my question of why my nostrils are releasing rivers of blood suddenly. Maybe you can.”

Zander chuckled. “Someone knows why but they aren’t talking. What’s known to everyone born and raised here is that all who cross the county line have to tough it out for three days until the nosebleeds stop. Three days until you breathe fresh air.”

“Saw that online. Hearing it from you doesn’t make it any easier to believe.”

“You don’t have to believe me now. Tomorrow is your third day here. You’ll find out for yourself.”

Zander pulled out his phone and squinted as he checked the time.

“Need glasses?”

“I need some sleep but I won’t be getting that anytime soon.” Zander paused as his exhausted mind struggled with what it was about to say. “I apologize, Jules, but I switched shifts with you.”

“Excuse me, what now?”

“Had to convince Bianca to let me switch with you. I have to finish editing a video tonight and staying here until closing was going to get in the way. This new video needs to drop tomorrow.”

“I have to close on my first day?”

“Consider it a favor for getting a job without an interview.”

Julia considered this blessing her cousin was referring to as a sign of how far she was from where she wanted to be—not one that was getting her closer to where she wanted to go. After eight years of schooling, saying one-liners after examining a dead body like her childhood hero, Horatio Caine, was the next rung on her life ladder. Instead, she was picking up the afternoon-until-close shift for her younger cousin. Bartending had gotten her through Spellman while getting her master’s and had allowed her to keep minor change in her pockets while school debt ate away (and still did) at whatever extra she tried to put in them. Bartending in a strange county at twenty-six and moving in with her father, who had been at sea more than he had been home during her first eighteen years of life, was not how she had planned to spend this time as she slowly inched toward the prime of her life.

The brunch rush came, and The Pit hit maximum capacity before noon. Servers on staff that day whizzed and zigzagged past each other like wide receivers running routes on the dining floor. The two cousins floated around at a slower pace as Zander continued to train Julia throughout the day. Considering her experience, it wasn’t hard learning most of the drink specials. They had only gone over thirty out of the fifty-two, which Julia had written in her personal mini-notepad to memorize later. As Zander continued to review the list of drinks, Julia’s attention drifted to the customers’ conversations.

“Told my mom if she moved up here, it would heal her knee in no time. The water’s that good,” a woman at table six told her husband, who didn’t look too pleased at the thought of his mother-in-law moving in.

Table ten, “You wouldn’t believe it, Jan. I forgot to have the Jefferson kid stop by the house and water the plants. They went without water for two weeks while I was skiing. I came back and they had actually grown more without water.”

“I told you some routines aren’t necessary anymore.”

Table fifteen, “I’m telling you, bro, she fucking disappeared. I flew her in for Memorial Day weekend and, while I was getting my rocks off before taking her to the airport that Monday evening, she disappeared when I was wiping sweat out of my eyes. I was stuck between a heart attack and trying to finish myself off until she called and blasted me about mailing her the things she brought on the trip. Then I saw her on IG live explaining to sixteen people watching how she teleported halfway around the country. There’s—.”

“Julia! What do you add next?”

“Huh?”

“What comes next in the Triple Wave after the Patron? Please tell me you were paying attention. I can’t leave without you knowing a little something.”

“You should’ve thought about that before throwing me under the bus on my first day.”

Zander didn’t flinch.

“A shot of rum and pineapple juice.” Julia tucked the already closed notebook into her newly acquired vest all employees of The Pit sported.

“Thank you. You’ll be able to halfway hold your own until the end of your shift,” Zander said, squinting for the time again on his phone.

“You mean yours,” Julia mumbled under her breath as she noticed her cousin struggling once again to see as he ignored another one of her snarky remarks. “Try to get some rest before you edit tonight. You might actually get some work done.”

“Can’t. My new lead actress is meeting me at my place and we are going to go over some scripts while I finish editing. No rest for the visionary.”

“Just don’t burn yourself out.”

“I’ve been dropping three videos a week for an entire month. My subscribers have been jumping by the thousands daily. I think I’ll only stop once I burn out, honestly. Have to ride this wave as long as it lasts.”

Julia wasn’t a stranger to Zander’s success as a YouTuber. He had solicited his channel to her when she had called him about jobs in the area. Scripted fights weren’t her thing so the subscribe button went untouched. He and his cast of a few like minds had close to a million subscribers and, judging by the look of Cardinal-Wood above from a plane, a significant portion of those followers could be in this county alone. Most rockets keep going until they reach a new world or the space in between. She could see why he had no intentions of slowing down.

Hours passed and evening came. The rush dwindled but patrons still filled The Pit. Shadowing her cousin behind the bar, having a stalled-out rocket ship of her own, limited Julia to using the tools in her arsenal—specifically the tools she had paid for but the return on investment hadn’t cashed in yet. She used the time between orders to prematurely diagnose customers based on their drinks:

1. Long Island ice teas with depression

2. Any vodka drink with narcissism

3. Bourbon on the rocks with sociopathy

4. Tequila shots with bipolar disorder

It didn’t hurt to dream of using her skills accurately to one day to help make someone’s world a better place. Tragedy strikes and there’s usually a murderer, rapist, thief, or a force of nature on the other side of it. She had the knowledge to stop the first three and maybe a prayer could stop the last one. She knew she had what it takes to make one person’s life change after a tragedy, a way to live after death. It’s what she wished someone had done for her.

“Alright, time for me to get out of here,” Zander said, passing a customer a shot of tequila. “Follow me.”

The cousins found Bianca by the podium, giving Kyle what looked like stern instructions. She was using a wide range of hand motions to get her point across. Kyle’s head went back and forth like a life-sized bobblehead, attempting to acknowledge whatever Bianca was saying.

“Don’t forget to take the pictures down and wipe behind them too. Get Bobby and the new girl to take care of that while you and the others focus on the ceiling and tables. Oh, hello, new girl and the cousin who threw her under the bus on her first day.”

“Come on, Bianca, I just got her off my back. Don’t reactivate her, please.”

“No, please remind him of his less-than-honorable ways,” Julia said, giving Zander a nudge and a side eye.

“I try every chance I get. Zander, can you get Bobby before you head out? I don’t have time to repeat myself. My flight is in the morning and I have to finish packing.” Zander’s eyebrows lifted and his eyes followed them like a flag being pulled up a post slowly. Bianca reiterated her request by saying they needed Bobby before Zander could leave, as Julia was going to finish the day shadowing him. Zander went on his search but not with the speed of someone excited to do it.

“Where are you heading to?” Julia asked during the break in the evening’s instructions.

“Egypt. This vacation has been on the calendar for six months and I’m still trying to figure out if I will do everything I planned while I’m there.”

“How long are you going for?”

“Three weeks. Just under a month to explore ancient history and visit one of the old seven wonders of the world.”

“Old?”

“Yeah. Would you believe it’s not listed as one of the new, modern seven wonders of the world? They’ve been put into a legacy program, forgotten by this new age. Better visit soon before someone tears them down for a resort.”

Kyle cut in. “You know you can extend your trip. See all the sites you want, start a petition, and spread the news about the atrocities society is committing to history. We’ll take care of The Pit for you.”

“You wish—” Bianca said but her words trailed over the same mental cliff over which her thoughts had fallen.

Suddenly the rich smell of whiskey and wood polish that filled The Pit faded away, displaced by an aroma that started off as lavender in the nose but incited the taste of honey on the tongue. It overtook the owner and the two employees followed each other down the newly found mind-fall mountain. The intoxicating odor put to shame every aisle at Bath & Body Works known to man—or at least to those three—and they continued to fall. The descent took them past every anxiety put in the hands of the creator, held on the back of the owner, and stuck on the mind of a stranger and they landed on a voice.

“Hello, is Zander Thurman in?” the voice asked, soothing the space in the brain where pleasure lives. The sound was soft and comforting, ringing with the pitch of a tuning fork as it set and configured images in the minds of those who listened. Bianca felt the solace of a lone cloud on a summer day and Kyle felt a warm blanket in front of a fire on a winter night. An image of an enclosed coffin flashed in Julia’s mind. She was unable to shake the feeling she was still falling.

Standing by the front entrance was a woman with black locs flowing from her head to her shoulders. She wore a tailored black suit and the demeanor of a lawyer who just won a tough case or a parishioner elated after hearing a heartfelt sermon. Her smile was too wide for her to have come from a funeral unless it represented relief at the death of the deceased. She waited for a response. The possibility of the door not opening and the impossibility of the guest standing there crossed Julia’s mind but the thought was fleeting. As the woman moved closer Julia was captivated by her beauty and her locs, which made an unnatural movement, as if they were shifting side to side on their own. Bianca and Kyle, mesmerized just the same, turned to greet the guest, mimicking Julia’s speechless manner.

The woman’s presence—not her height—grew as she floated toward the podium. Standing at five foot five, just under Julia’s line of sight, the woman was illuminated by a force from her pores, possibly the perfume she was wearing, but Julia didn’t mind the overexposure. The smell was inviting; Julia felt herself take a step closer as if she was going to greet the guest instead of answer her question.

Bianca’s brain finished resetting, allowing her to respond first. “H- Hello. He’s in the back locating an employee for me. How can I help you?”

“We have an appointment this evening. It seems too early for him to be home, so I thought I could catch him here. May I see a menu while I wait?”

Kyle reached for a menu out of a stack placed on the side of the podium. “You must be the actress he hired for his skits he’s about to shoot. I’m Kyl—”

“Kyle.” The woman finished for him, pointing to the left side of her chest with a smile, indicating his name tag. Her wide smile returned, sporting teeth that reflected the light. It was playful but somehow looked like the grin of a shark. Sweat built up on Kyle’s forehead as the woman reached for the menu, which Julia thought unusual until she noticed her own brow perspire. “Yes, I’m Libby Yolke, the new lead on the Hearts & Bones YouTube channel.” She took a half bow. “Nice to meet you, Kyle, and you as well, Bianca. And who might you be?” Libby asked, turning her attention to Julia.

There was a glimmer in Libby’s eyes as if they held a distant star. Julia didn’t notice this flickering light until their eyes met. The flash was brief but long enough to freeze Julia’s own name on the tip of her tongue until the shimmer died down.

“Julia. It’s m-my first day.”

“Ah, no name tag for newbies. Nice to meet you, Julia,” Libby said, sending another ping of a tuning fork ringing between Julia’s ears at the sound of her own name. Libby looked over the menu as the three continued to watch. “Wow, fifty-two drink specials! I would say today is my lucky day, but there’s so many options and not enough time to decide.”

“Hey, Libby!” Zander called out as he walked up to the podium with Bobby trailing him. “I thought you were going to meet me at my place.”

“Wasn’t sure you’d get off by 7:30, so I came here instead. Glad I did or I wouldn’t have met your lovely coworkers.” Libby closed the menu and scanned the lineup of The Pit employees and Bianca. Zander easily broke the ranks and proceeded toward Libby, giving her a hug. Bobby, who was shorter than Kyle but built with the frame of a Mini Cooper, took his place in the viewing gallery on Julia’s right side. Sweat immediately spilled from his acne-filled pores.

“Damn, she’s beautiful,” Kyle said under his breath, loud enough for Julia to hear with Bianca between them. It was maybe loud enough for Libby to hear too, but that didn’t matter. Her focus was on Zander, whose face mimicked the electricity illuminating from Libby like a lightning rod after being struck. Able to sway past the lavender scent that filled the waiting area, the voice that spoke to the mind, and the looks that bound the others in place with a heat wave, the energy that had escaped Zander most of the day returned.

Bobby attempted to speak but couldn’t form his words fast enough. “She’s—.”

“Here, hold this for me, Bobby, my love.” Libby passed him the menu.

“Alright, Julia. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon and try not to work too hard.” Zander said playfully. Julia responded with a half smile and a wave, unable to reciprocate the charm.

“Goodbye, it was nice meeting you all. Can’t wait to come back for the drink specials,” Libby said as she and Zander exited the building, taking the heat with them.





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