The Catholic schoolboys from across the street come looking for her, trolling the waters, sniffing around like skittish dogs in navy- blue blazers and red ties. They believe in Jesus and the Heavenly Father. They believe that Christ’s body lives in those tasteless paper- thin wafers, his blood is watered-down wine you buy by the gallon. Glory. Hallelujah.
Necco likes wine. Sometimes they bring some for her. Wild Irish Rose. Thunderbird. Sweet as Kool-Aid. Sometimes it’s beer they bring. Warm beer in dented cans that have been riding around in some boy’s pocket all day. When she opens them, they spray, spurt- ing like geysers, getting all over her and the boys, making them laugh.
“Hey, Fire Girl,” they cry. “You home?”
How long they’ve been coming, she doesn’t know. She’s not even sure how long she’s lived in the Palace. Four months? Six months even? She moved in just after Mama died, just after she and Hermes got together. She asks Promise to tell her, but the doll is no good at keeping time. She used to sing, back when Daddy first made her, but at some point she lost her ability to speak; Necco can still recall the funny, too-high voice singing “Rock-a-Bye Baby.”
Promise had another name back then, too. But just like Necco’s old name, that name was left behind. She’s tried her best to forget it all.
The Palace is a rusted-out Pontiac without tires, parked and abandoned in a vacant lot. There was once a brick building here, a print shop with an old press, but all that remains are the crum- bled lengths of wall, no more than six feet high, and covered in ivy. The lot is full of sumac bushes, bittersweet, chicory, yarrow, milk- weed: nature trying to reclaim what was taken. It’s been a dumping ground over the years, and in addition to the piles of bricks and old rotten timbers, there’s a washer and dryer, a heating-oil tank full of bullet holes, a crumpled shopping cart, piles of old tires, and rusted bedsprings. All of this provides excellent cover and makes the Pontiac blend in, look like just another dumped and ruined thing.
Necco has found things in the lot’s rubble: little metal letters, gears from large machines. She keeps these things, stashes them away. They remind her of her father, of his workshop full of gad- gets and gears. She used to visit him there, sit for hours on a stool, watching while he worked on his inventions, passing him tools with lovely names like crescent wrench and needle-nose pliers. She’d wind up his creatures, watch them walk and soar, carefully checking them all for secret compartments, which might hold a surprise: Bazooka bubble gum, Fireballs, starlight mints. She stoked the fire in his forge, watched him bend and shape hot metal like it was river clay. Daddy wore a leather apron, and would whistle while he worked. Old jazz songs, mostly.
“Fire Girl, Fire Girl, Fire Girl?” the boys cry now, their own improvised song as they come around the brick wall, wind their way through the rubble. They stick their heads through her front door, which is actually a smashed-out windshield covered in an old curtain. The curtain has covered wagons with little cowboys and lassos. Giddyup and go.
Resting along the dashboard is part of her ever-growing collection of treasures: a tiny bird skull, the gears and letters from the printing press, the bottom of a bottle she sometimes uses as a magnifying glass to start a fire, and the motorcycle goggles Hermes gave her.
“Show us, Fire Girl,” one of the boys orders. They bring new boys all the time, and she waits in the Pontiac like a queen on her throne. But she doesn’t show them for nothing, no. The boys know to come bearing gifts: silver coins, crumpled dollars, jewelry with broken clasps, silk scarves stolen from their mothers, and sweets. Hermes says she should just take cash, but she enjoys these other tributes. She loves candy the most: saltwater taffy, chocolate bars with light and fluffy nougat, red and white peppermints that melt on her tongue and taste like Christmas morning. She rarely speaks to them, so they don’t know her favorite candy. Necco wafers. They were her favorites when she was growing up, in the time Before the Flood. Afterward, when she came to soaked in river water and coughing it out of her lungs like a fish-girl just learning to breathe air, her mama asked if she wanted anything, anything at all, and this was what she wanted. And Mama laughed then, loud and relieved, and started calling her Necco.
Today, the boys have brought a girl, which is strange and changes the feeling of the whole afternoon. The girls don’t usually come, too scared to walk across the street; too frightened of getting burned or sliced, or of being caught by the nuns with their cruel faces.
This new girl is something of an oddity in and of herself—very tall and thin with dirty-blond hair and red lipstick. She looks older than the bright-eyed boys who crowd around her, more knowing. Tucked around her neck, over the drab school uniform of white shirt, navy blazer, and red tie, she’s got a purple knitted scarf, even though it’s too warm for such a thing and the purple clashes with the school colors. Instead of the black patent-leather Mary Janes the other girls wear, she’s got on a battered pair of Doc Martens, with fuzzy, striped leg warmers in earth-tone colors. Her long fingers are stained with paint and ink, their nails short and ragged. They’re the hands of an artist, hands that remind Necco of her own mother when she’d come out of her painting studio. This new girl rests her hands on the Pontiac’s hood, drums her fingers like maybe she’s got better things to do, other places to go.