9 min read

A Noisome Tornado

Wherein little Bat and little Mina have adorable little traumas.

Previously: We concluded Part Two of this tale, where the Hull sisters decided to finally address the big dumb fight they had a year ago. Now we dive into Part Three, the tale of that big dumb fight, starting with a supersized chapter that crams in some backstory. Not really a fan of backstory but the people demand it.

— 36 —

Wilhelmina was birthed in a seaplane somewhere over the Empty Quarter. This was back when her parents were constantly on the move, traveling to swamp temples and skyscraper ruins and igloo shanties—wherever work took them. (The girls’ folks, Harper and Adria Juno, are the only living practitioners of the illegal and probably immoral tattooing technique known as the blood anima. It is quite popular amongst the well-heeled and depraved.)

Mina recalls adoring those four years before her sister came along. She got to see every seamy corner of the world, she got to do whatever she wanted, and she got full attention from Mother and Pop.

But then there was an incident with one of their clients, an opium autarch named Masha who was dissatisfied with their work, to say the least, and put a bounty on their heads (and genitals). So they fled to Harper’s hometown of Fort Hook to lay low. They changed their name to Hull, bought a junk boat called the Malquiades, and lived on it there in the wharf, just in case they suddenly needed to set sail.

Soon after that, they had Batya. Birthed in the Hook just like her daddy. This was when—in Mina’s personal opinion—everything went to shit.

Bat was a vexing handful as soon as the cord was cut. “I feel like a noisome tornado has burst from my nethers,” is how her mother put it, and a few months later she told Harper to march right down to Dr. Vic Vickers’ office and get the fanciest vasectomy available, which he did.

The girls fought nonstop for years, making daily existence just about unbearable for their parents, but it got much worse when they started enjoying each other’s company. They teamed up and formed a united front against their folks, and then the wharf, and then the whole world. The combination of Mina’s inane stratagems and Bat’s absolute disregard for her own safety proved to be immensely destructive and exhausting.

So Harper and Adria did what Hook parents have always done, which is find a way to monetize their children’s talents. Luckily (?) there’s an endless demand in this town for tiny scoundrels who are adept at making problems go away via cunning or barbarity or, more often, by creating even larger problems. Bonus: no child labor laws, at least not any that get seriously enforced.

Thus, Bat and Mina got to know the innards of Fort Hook at a very early age, working as freelancers for low-level bosses in need of disposable henchmen. They picked pockets and kicked shins and broke windows. Whenever they got caught, which was frequently, they tried to look as adorable as possible. That got them a free pass from time to time, but usually they were knocked around, hard. And it started to leave marks.

Their parents, perhaps feeling some pangs of guilt—unlikely, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt—decided to augment their street education with slightly more wholesome skills, ones they’d picked up during their adventures abroad: breaking your fall from a significant height, following someone who’s behind you, artificial accents and gaits, grip-loosening tactics, ventriloquism, echolocation, non-sleeping, temporary heart-stopping, etc. By the time the girls hit double digits, they knew everything they needed to know to get in serious trouble.

Then one night, Bat (11) and Mina (15) were in their shared bedroom on the Malquiades, pleasantly ignoring each other. Bat was in her hammock, completely sealed underneath her blanket, listening to Fabulous Don’s midnight show with one earphone. She doesn’t remember what song was playing, but she remembers the beat had this tiny glitch in it, once per bar, and that prong hooked onto her heart and tore it open a little more with each pass.

She was happily suffocating with her feelings when her unplugged ear heard a commotion. At some point, her mother had burst into the cramped berth and was yelling something about Uncle Larry coming for a visit.

Mina hastily hid the magazine she’d been reading and asked Mother to slow down and make sense for once. That made her even madder. Bat didn’t know what was going on but found it truly upsetting seeing their mom—usually the very definition of coldly amused composure—in a wild panic.

Mina started peppering her with questions and Mother abruptly switched to sign language. Not really standard ASL but a kind of cobbled-together finger-pidgin the family used when they wanted to silently make fun of someone or, in this case, communicate without being heard by covert listening devices.

Bat was not (and still isn’t) exactly fluent in the language aside from a few basics like you smell and he smells, so the frantic gesturing only freaked her out more. Mother slammed her fists together twice and stabbed three fingers upward. Mina gasped.

With that, their mother scurried back up the ladder as Mina threw herself out of her hammock and grabbed her shoes. That didn’t calm Bat down, either.

“What!” she cried. “Who is Uncle Larry?”

“Shush!” Mina hissed. “Why do we have all these goddamn codes if you don’t bother learning them?”

Bat gripped her transistor radio, half for reassurance and half for flinging at her sister’s face if that’s what needed to happen. “There are new codes every week!” And she hated herself for what happened next: she started crying. Not an ugly weep, though, just a couple dignified tears.

Mina saw them, softened, came over to her bunk. “Uncle Larry,” she whispered, “means an external threat is en route.” She looked at Bat all sad and sweet, swept her shitty bangs out of her eyes. “We’ve been compromised. Masha’s knifemaidens incoming. I’m sorry, Batty, but we have to scuttle the boat and flee the country.”

Bat made a tiny line out of her mouth and nodded, tried to look as stern and stoic as her sister. She said, toughly, “When?”

“Tonight,” Mina said, glancing at their digital clock glowing red. “Now.”

That’s when the weeping kicked in. It was like guhhhhh. Mina sighed, hoisted Bat out of the hammock, held her as long as she could given the time constraints. “I know,” she said.

This had happened a few times before—the sudden late night departure, run away, don’t think about it, figure it out later, or not—but flee the country was a new one.

“I’m guessing you don’t have your bag ready,” Mina said, hug time over.

Bat choked back her sobs, shook her head.

“You can bring eight items,” Mina said, and of course she had her satchel already in hand, and in fact often comforted herself by thinking through its inventory, knowing it was perfect and complete:

  1. Canteen filled with purified water
  2. Beef jerky
  3. Blonde wig
  4. Plastic bag filled with both flares and weed so it counted as one item
  5. Compass w/signal mirror (also one item)
  6. Birdcall that’s also a pipe (one item)
  7. Blanket with sentimental value that’s none of your business
  8. Lighter emblazoned with her own personal made-up heraldic badge (a golden talon clutching an exploding heart—extremely badass)

Bat did some more crying while she found her backpack at the bottom of a pile of dirty t-shirts and crammed it full of things that seemed desperately important at the time:

  1. Three dirty t-shirts
  2. Transistor radio w/earphone
  3. A plush donkey doll named Kevin Sanders (still has it)
  4. Half-eaten jar of peanut butter
  5. Tin of breath mints she stole from Mina
  6. An uncased pillow
  7. Shuriken emblazoned with her own personal made-up heraldic badge (a chesty mermaid impaling the sun with a trident—sick as hell)
  8. She couldn’t find an eighth thing

They climbed up to the deck of the Malquiades, sails furled, still a muggy summer haze even that late at night. Mother was going through Pop’s getaway bag and tossing unnecessary items overboard. Paperbacks and rolled up balls of socks bobbed in the waves.

While Bat tried to pull herself together, Mina stomped over to their mother, not mad at all, everything’s fine just hugely annoying as usual, why should this day be any different from any other. “Do we really have to sink the boat?”

“It’s already sinking,” Mother said. “Pulled the plug twenty minutes ago.”

“Where are we going?” Bat said, voice still quavering all over the place.

You are going to the Ballast Hotel. Hide out there until you run out of money. You should have enough for a month, maybe more if you steal room service. Best you don’t know where we’re going.”

It took a moment for the girls to even understand what they were hearing. Finally, Mina shook her head and yelled, “But you said,” and then started with the sign language.

“I certainly did not,” Mother said. “I said,” and then more gestures.

That was too much for Bat. “I don’t know what anyone is saying!

Pop, sporting nothing but the embarrassingly short shorts he liked to wear, came running up the gangplank. “Shh, Batya,” he said, then picked her up, hurt his back, regretted it, gently lowered her back down. “It’s only for a little while. You’ll be better off here with your sister.”

“Like hell!”

“I need you to take care of each other, OK?”

“I’ll take care of myself, Mina can go screw.”

“Gee thanks,” Mina said.

Pop pointed at both of them. “You mind each other and keep your heads down. You hear me? Your mother and I will resolve this thing and then come find you. Go. Now.”

No goodbyes or anything, the girls just ran across the esplanade and hid in the shadows. They watched their parents flee in two different directions. Then they watched an elite team of knife-wielding assassins emerge from the gloom and wander around, disappointed to find everyone gone. Then they watched the Malquiades sink to the bottom of the harbor.

They ran out of money after one week at the Ballast. Then they relocated to Guncotton Terminal, sleeping under benches and subsisting on packets of powdered onion soup mix.

They took any jobs they could find, which meant moving up from shinkicking to beatdowns and hot prowl burglaries and the odd arson.

Bat doesn’t like to think about this time. They lived on the streets more often than not, and associated exclusively with murderous thugs who couldn’t even be bothered to be interesting murderous thugs. She doesn’t remember ever feeling safe, not even for one complete minute.

This is when she first starting dreaming of her secret fortress. She would imagine every detail as she tried to fall asleep in an alleyway. A place she was going to build herself, somewhere between the mountain and the sea, where she could lock a door and just not be on high alert.

A place where she could be nowhere and think nothing.

The only other person allowed in the fortress would be Mina, because Mina was her best and only friend. And although Bat got them out of plenty of fixes with her fists, it was Mina who kept them alive through sheer force of will. Mina took care of her. Mina would never abandon her like their parents did. And it was Mina who finally got them a semi-permanent place to stay when she remembered their brief stint in the Wild Orienteers.

The Wild Orienteers: A youth organization dedicated to teaching girls ages 8-12 outdoor survival skills and the power of community and believing in yourself and all. There are sashes and badges and a lot of wandering through off-limits territory and spying on nature and recording your findings in tiny notebooks. The motto is: Explore!! and Document!!!!

As kids, Bat and Mina got kicked out of the organization after a month, but that was long enough to learn some things they could use in their line of work: knot tying, celestial navigation, punji stick whittling, bear karate. Also less useful tips like: Balsam fir resin makes an excellent antiseptic for treating cuts and abrasions. Disguise your scent with the smoke from green pine needles on a campfire. Cattails are one of the most abundant and best-tasting plants out there. The pileated woodpecker digs his home facing east.

Anyway the point is that alumnae had access to the Wild Orienteers Housing Facility, a hostel near the Crater district. When the girls demanded a room, the on-duty Senior Orienteer argued that “one month does not a true Wild Orienteer make,” but Bat counter-argued that she would go whittle a punji stick and put it in the Senior Orienteer’s ear-hole if she didn’t let them in, and the Senior Orienteer suddenly decided to take pity on these bedraggled, pungent girls.

So they lived in a tiny cinderblock room and waited for their parents to come find them.

They’re still waiting. It’s been about ten years.

They get postcards once in a while, but the pictures are of oddly generic locations like a parking lot or a delicatessen, and the handwritten messages almost feel like random selections of words, as if in a code that the girls don’t yet know how to decipher.

Bat claims not to remember what they look like, but she does.


This has been Chapter 36 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: You’re Hairy and Insane