Phosphorus Jack isn’t one of the glossy uptown heroes, all cloak and jewel-tones. He’s a hopped-up vigilante, a little guy in dark leathers snapping and crawling with white sparks. Can’t fly, but he’s got the jetwing for that, the weird jet-powered cross between a surfboard and a thyroidal boomerang.
On balance he’s a good guy. Gives bullies grief if he catches them making trouble, stops the occasional robbery, plays thorn-in-the-side to Petrochenko. Steps up against some of the weirder stuff, too—like if the current generation of the Clockwork Brigade show up, or that time the Harrowsnake dragged itself out of the dockside shadows. Plus everyone knows he never turns down a clash with the Mechromancer.
Without the hood, Phosphorus Jack is Jennifer Jackson, a neighbourhood girl. Grew up in scabby front yards dotted with dandelions, skinning knuckles and knees bloody on sidewalks that cracked with grass. Got grease under her nails in the golden light of summer, cursed and coddled old engines before she was old enough to smoke, rattled thin and spiky through adolescence with the Jackson temper. Fought with her dad and moved out, back, finally out and all the way to the tired brick apartment ten blocks from home and eight from the family garage.
Never wanted to leave, never thought there was anywhere worth leaving to, but always wanted to move.
People know she grew up and settled down a bit. A good mechanic, like her dad. Not friendly (so no-one notices when she’s not around, and Phosphorus Jack is), but not remarkable. No-one looks twice at Jennifer Jackson.
It’s as Jennifer Jackson that she gets in to work early as hell. She’s ditched the double-thick leathers with the glowing wire-mesh shield, and her jetwing is packed up in her car’s battered-but-not-rusty trunk. She looks like the tired mechanic who’s worked here since she got back onto polite enough terms with her dad.
She doesn’t look at all like someone who had to cram her roommate’s corpse into the apartment fridge last night. She did something to the fridge, left it singing, and that means maybe Millie won’t rot before Jennifer has time to fix things.
(Spirals of frostbite are arcing up her arms from making the fridge’s coils exceed the manufacturer’s specs in a truly unforeseen direction, but her hands are still working, and that should be enough.)
She just needs the right tools.
Everything is too big, meant for work where you don’t need to squint to see what you’re doing. She’s standing there in the early morning quiet trying to think of what she needs or where to look when her dad shows up.
“Jenny?” The lights click on, painting the inside of the garage with proper colour. “You’re in early.”
“I need time off.”
“What the hell for?”
She turns, jaw jutting, glad they’re face-to-face. Phone calls are harder. On the phone he sounds sad and she feels like she should say more, so she hangs up.
Work’s easy. They keep their distance.
“Millie’s sick,” she says, “and I need time off.”
Her dad stares at her. After the times she almost-not-quite ran away from home and slept in her car overnight, they would meet and talk, and when they did Jennifer bought her own coffee and would not let him pay. He looked this old then, and this stubbornly tired.
They understand each other, and don’t hate each other, and will never be out of each other’s lives. This is what it means to be close.
“She gonna be okay?” Because he can care about Millie, that’s fine. They can both care about Millie.
Jennifer startles them both by saying “She paints her nails.”
He looks at her like she’s gone stupid.
“She doesn’t even care that she needs to keep doing it. She likes that she needs to slow down to do it, who the—”
“—who the fuck wants to slow down?”
He’s still looking at her. She catches her breath and plants her feet, stands like when she hovers on the jetwing. Stands there with anything that could touch her miles away.
He’s not a bad man. He stepped up when her mom left, settled down and quit doing whatever he used to do at night. He used to hug her mom, and her mom hugged her, but that’s not them. What’s them is the garage, talking along the edges of things, and the roles they fall into like metal filings pulling to invisible lines that run close but don’t ever, ever cross.
“You come in to tell me that?”
— * —
It really clicked with the jetwing. Jennifer’s not a scientist, with their reproducible results and predictive power. She’s a mechanic, and machines are quirky as spoiled cats, give their all or sulkily balk their operators. Machines grow into their own selves, want to do things—she feels it when she repairs them or builds them from scrap, and she just helps them along.
Jennifer thinks even simple tools might want, but she works best with things striving for motion. The dreams of keys and prybars are too subtle to catch.
On bad days, slow days, she’d take the garage’s truck and pick through junkyards. She paid the garage back for the gas (Millie was only the office clerk then, and not her roommate) and took the pieces that felt best out back to tinker when the mood itched at her, dropped a tarp over them when it didn’t.
Jennifer can’t fly, can’t take off and blast through the sky with the wind shattering against her grinning teeth. But she wanted that giddy blast of motion, and her fingers recognized the intakes and compressor that shared the want.
Like a jigsaw, if you didn’t have the picture but the pieces grew brighter as you went along. Like giving the office clerk a ride home after she stayed late one night and every light being green. Like metal filings finding the perfect arcs of magnets, following invisible lines.
One night she worked until the sky was the flat grease-blue of pre-pre-dawn and her fingers crimped into claws. She loaded the clunky and gleaming result into her trunk and slept in her car until she’d blunted her exhaustion enough to get safely home.
The summer light was low and golden late that afternoon when she drove out of the city and heaved the wedge of metal and engine out of her trunk. It was not quite as long as she was tall, and she could put her arms around all but the broadest section of its weirdly tapered width.
And when she climbed on and fired the ignition, it rasped over the gravel shoulder and jerked into the air above the grass, and she whooped delight.
The rest came quickly. The hooded suit of leathers, dull bulk with a crackling electric charge stitching it together. The short coat to cut the wind. With the hood and goggles covering half her face, why bother leaving the city to fly? And then she caught some of Petrochenko’s boys hassling her favourite bartender, ripped their car roof right open with the jetwing’s narrow end and took off laughing as they tried to chase her, and that was how that started.
The reporter who wrote all the stories tagged her as Phosphorus Jack. As a guy. Like someone who wasn’t all tits and spandex couldn’t be anything else. It was nothing new and she didn’t let it bug her, just went out and bolted the length of the city from skyscrapers to docks, found the Hydrozoan squabbling with some cops and cut the whole mess short by running straight through him. Tiny green and pink jellyfish everywhere. She heard enough of them stuck together to arrest and dump into a saltwater tank.
She felt better, after; she always did after she blew off some steam.
— * —
Millie had been the garage’s secretary for nearly a year when she moved in with Jennifer. She worked part-time and stayed late to talk with the mechanics sometimes. She was younger than Jennifer and half a head shorter, wore bright print tops and painted her nails daily—you could tell, the colours changed—was smiling and cheerful and often hummed to herself. Jennifer had seen people stop her to ask for directions on the street. People liked her.
Jennifer couldn’t think of much to say to her, but Millie didn’t seem to mind. And Millie didn’t give her that feeling most people did, like she had to back away to keep from banging her shin into a chair.
Jennifer had missed that anything unpleasant was going on. The other mechanics had missed it too. Her dad had not.
“Jenny,” he’d said, “you’d let a friend sleep on your couch for a few days?”
She figured he was thinking out loud about someone he used to know. “Sure I would.”
He nodded. “I’m gonna talk to Millie. She might need a place to stay.”
It took a second for her to get that he meant for Millie to stay with her.
“Millie’s—” She didn’t think Millie would call her a friend, but that sounded whiny. And her dad looked like he thought the hesitation was one of their arguments starting. She shook her head. “Why?”
“Just a hunch.”
Later she’d gone in to ask Millie to put in an order for taillight glass, and found Millie, her dad, and an almost-stranger all crammed into the tiny office with its battered cabinets and humming computer.
She recognized the guy from around—one of Petrochenko’s rank and file, a clean-shaven shark-eyed man in a suit one cut above cheap. Petrochenko lived uptown, but he had people who worked local.
Millie wasn’t smiling.
“You’ve got no business here.” From her dad.
“I’m just talking to my girlfriend,” the man in the suit said. “You can’t kick a guy out for talking to his girlfriend. You don’t mind, do you, honey?” he said to Millie, and Millie smiled like Jennifer might have believed if she hadn’t seen the real thing.
“It don’t matter if she minds.”
Millie looked down at her hands. Jennifer saw her nails—a glossy peachy gold—were edged in hangnail-red and had been bitten short.
“We’re a business, and you’re not a customer.”
“I could be.”
“We aren’t takin' new clients,” her dad said. The office was so small that stepping towards the man meant he moved in front of Millie. The man didn’t seem to get that her dad was getting angry, but Jennifer did.
“Buddy,” she said in a tone that meant asshole, “get out of here before I move you out.” Her own nails, blunt and oil-dark, curled into her palms. She’d give him a warning—she’d bled off a lot of steam on the weekend, there’d been that thing with the Pentergeist—but she was good to take it farther.
“It’s okay,” Millie said, and she turned up the smile. “Honey, I’ll, I’ll call you, okay? But I’m working right now. I’ll call.”
He left. Her father cleared his throat and said “Jenny, could you excuse us?” And she’d gone, closed the door behind her.
Millie came to see her that afternoon, waiting by the wall until Jennifer put down the spanner she was using and looked up.
“Your dad said I could stay with you for a few days?”
“Yeah.” Jennifer wouldn’t have ever thought to offer, but it was Millie. It was only couch space, and everyone liked Millie. “You, uh, want me to take you back to your place to pick up some stuff?”
Millie nodded. “It’ll have to be before six-thirty,” she said. “I told him I’d meet him for dinner, but I’m not sure how long he’ll wait at the restaurant.”
Jennifer thought that was smart, but couldn’t decide whether to say I’m real sorry or you’re coping pretty well, I guess. She kept her mouth shut and nodded.
Millie cried on the couch that night, but quietly. Jennifer sat on her bed, trying to think of what you could say to someone living out of a suitcase and sleeping on a couch. Her dad had hugged her mom when things were rough, but she couldn’t think of doing that to someone herself, not even Millie.
After a while she heard Millie get up and get a glass of water, and after another while she stopped hearing her move around, and everything was quiet again.
Jennifer set her alarm for seven.
She woke up smelling coffee and remembered her guest and came out blinking. Millie had coaxed the coffee maker into life and was poking at the toaster. Her nails were trimmed smooth, and painted flame-blue.
“I didn’t want to go through your fridge,” she said, “so I just went down to the convenience store.”
“… thanks.” Jennifer didn’t like the idea of other people using her kitchen but either Millie was different or toast and coffee didn’t count. She took a mug from Millie’s blue-tipped hands. “You going in to work today?”
Millie shook her head. “You dad gave me a day off,” she said. “I can leave when you do. I’ve got errands.”
So Millie was around, and she wasn’t quiet—she talked, and hummed, and was on the phone enough that Jennifer learned her sister was taking classes somewhere and her mom was out of town—but she wasn’t annoying. It was like going up an extra flight of stairs to get home; weird for a bit, and then you stopped noticing.
Spring ended. Phosphorus Jack got a short team-up with Nightwatch and a bunch of Petrochenko’s boys (Millie’s ex among them) got bruises and arrests over a car-smuggling thing. Jennifer told Millie that if she wanted to stick around and split the rent it’d be okay.
“Are you sure? That’s nice, but you’re a really private person, Jennifer. I’m not going to be hurt if you want your space back.”
“You’re okay,” Jennifer said.
Phosphorus Jack and the Lady Vespertine had a really weird midsummer at the city gardens. Jennifer helped Millie move the foldout couch into the dippy alcove at the end of the living room and drove her out to a secondhand furniture store to pick up a freestanding closet that blocked off part of the room.
Things moving into place, slow but good.
Jennifer had thought she’d hate having a roommate, but coming home to the lights being on because someone else needed them felt comfortable.
— * —
It wasn’t about Phosphorus Jack. It was one of those messy personal things other people had that Jennifer only vaguely saw the edges of.
It was winter and the pipes in the apartment rattled and banged in the mornings. Jennifer could sleep through that, but she heard Millie talking to someone, low and then low and unhappy.
She blinked awake enough to parse insults between the bangs, picked up the fire extinguisher in her room because it was heavy, and kicked open the door to the living room.
Millie’s ex nearly jumped out of his skin, grabbed for the gun under his jacket but didn’t point it at her.
“Lady, this is private, just get back—”
“Buddy,” she said, “get out of here before I move you out.”
He probably recognized her then because he looked pissed, started to lift the gun. She sprayed him with the fire extinguisher and Millie was crying please, grabbing his arm and they were struggling in the cloud of white dust—
There was a flat banging noise. Not the pipes.
Him bending over Millie. Jennifer running over. White dust settling. A neat little hole and a fat red stain
over Millie’s heart
in the gray
Jennifer losing her temper when he looked up. Swinging the extinguisher down at him.
Over and over.
Then she’s cradling Millie and gagging like she’s just been sucker-punched. Everything’s dirty and cold, Millie’s gone and she’s not coming back, Jennifer’s holding meat as still as a dead engine. Everything that made it warm is gone, and the dark hole punched through Millie’s heart is starting to run dry.
And she thinks, well:
It’s only a pump, after all.
Machines get personalities, they want things, that’s why she can do what she does, she’s just helping them with what they want to do anyway—
It’s easier to fix something if it has a self. You fix the machine, and it starts doing what it wants to do again, and everything goes back to how it was.
And nothing has to stay broken.
She does the thing with the fridge, leaves everything that was inside it spilled out on the kitchen floor.
The man in the living room is junk. If he keeps leaking someone will notice. She dumps him in the bathtub and goes to the garage for tools.
— * —
“I need to fix something.” She can focus on that. She can get her dad to focus on that, move past any questions about her shit morning.
“Okay,” he says. “Can you bring it in?” She shakes her head. “What d’you need to do it?”
It’s the best kind of question.
“It’s detail work,” she says. “Really tiny detail work, everything built out of m—rubber and leather and stuff. It’s a real mess. I don’t—” have any idea where to start, so she came to the garage. It’s where she learned to fix things.
“Too small to work on here?”
She hiccups. “Way too small.” She can’t talk to anyone about what she needs. Vespertine doesn’t really understand people never mind how to fix them, and the Dart Foundation are a bunch of scientists who don’t get machines like she does, and—
“C’mon back,” her dad says, heading to the fuse room.
It’s a tiny little closet, fuses on the wall and cramped with junk—old receipt books, a rust-clotted wrench, two paint cans and the skeleton of a roller, an old dropcloth. Her dad moves stuff aside, picks up the dropcloth with a crackling sound as all the spiderwebs tear free.
There’s a small short toolbox underneath it, cradled in a hollow in the foundation. He moves it to the floor between them, and she hunkers down to look as he flips the latches open. The inside has soft black padding.
There’s an armature shaped like gloves, rods stretching out from each finger. The rods end in nozzles or sockets, or hinge together into miniature pliers, or sport gears so tiny Jennifer needs to touch them before she can be sure that they end in tiny turning grips.
There’s something like goggles, with half a dozen lenses on swinging arms.
“What did you use these for?” They feel like hope under her fingers.
“Watches,” her dad says flatly.
There’s no clockwork she can imagine that the waldo couldn’t handle, but—
“You don’t do that.” The arguments blur together, but she sure as hell remembers what he’s talked about making. When she looks up, he’s watching her hands on the tools.
“Gave it up after your mom was gone,” which is how he always talks about it. He looks down at her, all calm. “You take that and go fix things, Jenny. But then I need it back.”
She doesn’t see why—the dropcloth over the case was so dusty she can feel the grit settling on her skin—but she nods.
“You let me know if you ain’t gonna be back by Friday,” he says, and she ticks a little salute off her forehead, closes the case and takes it and leaves.
— * —
“Why the nail polish?” she’d finally asked, the early autumn day Millie somehow managed to air the kitchen out. The only window was painted shut and across the alley from the Chinese restaurant next door. Going out on the fire escape got you a lungful of old oil and General Tao’s. But the kitchen smelled soft and clean.
Jennifer pointed to Millie’s nails, which had started the day an electric rose, and were currently a badly chipped pink.
“Oh!” Millie shrugged. “I like painting them. It’s like putting on lipstick, except slower.”
“But you need to keep doing it.”
“But I like doing it,” Millie said. “I’ll clean them tonight, and then I get to pick a new colour tomorrow, see?” She wiggled her fingers and Jennifer nodded, blinking. “I was thinking spaghetti for dinner?”
“Do you want to come out with me? I was going to pick up some meatballs for the sauce. And maybe stop for a coffee and talk?”
Jennifer had brought peace to the Mechromancer’s scrap-pile horrors, and fought the Harrowsnake (which had been a group effort, but still), and just last week survived a fistfight with Phobos long enough for the Lady Vespertine to banish it again. Fights could be frightening, but they were simple, and once they got started the momentum carried you along.
Sitting down and getting coffee was not a fight.
Jennifer muttered an excuse and fled into her room until dinner was ready.
But Millie didn’t complain or look hurt or get pointedly quiet.
Next week Phosphorus Jack got into another go-round with the Mechromancer. And it was Jennifer’s birthday; Millie made cupcakes and arranged for a rush delivery on the new car lift for the garage but didn’t say anything or make cake or sing, so it was okay.
— * —
The tools from her dad look like Clockwork Brigade gear, miniature linkages and shining lenses wrapped in tarnished brass filigree. Jennifer’s never felt anything that wanted so much to build-make-fix, the kind of drive that takes years to build up.
The filigree is okay. She doesn’t need plain. She needs something precise and reliable that works on delicate slippery structures in a difficult environment, and the waldo does that like she’s never seen.
She takes apart the biggest cuts of meat still on the bone that she can find, just to put them back together. The apartment reeks. She thinks Millie could fix that and then stops noticing it.
Muscles are pistons, held together by belts. Nerves are cables. She looks up specs for how much space bone needs to regrow marrow.
The phone rings. She ignores it.
The hardest thing will be splicing her repairs together with what’s already there. She can’t weld anything and it’s fiddly.
She tunes out the banging on the door, working on anchoring muscle to bone just right, but then she hears her dad’s voice.
“You’ve been gone a week and a half!”
Oh. “I’m busy,” Jennifer calls again. He’s trying the apartment door, but she locked it. People should quit letting in guys who don’t live in the building.
“Jenny, it stinks in there.”
“Millie’s sick.” Her voice is wavering, and she blinks furiously until the meat comes clear again through the glass lenses.
There’s a pause.
“She need a doctor?”
“No!” Her heart’s in her mouth. They couldn’t do anything except take Millie away before she gets it right. “I got this, it’s fine, she’s just sick, go away!”
Her head’s pounding. She’d rub her eyes, but she’s steering the goddamn waldo, right in the middle of something—
“Jenny.” He’s gone quieter.
“You sure you got this?”
They can always ask each other mechanical questions. The garage gave them that much.
The waldo’s fingers wait patiently for her prompt, gleaming in the slippery mess.
They want to fix this, just like she does. Everyone liked Millie. Everyone would want this fixed.
“Yeah,” she says, calmer. “I got this.”
This last thing, once more for practice, then the real work …
He taps the door. “You remember you do better when you get your sleep.”
“I’ll see you in three days, dad.”
She digs into her work again, doesn’t hear him leave. But she remembers what he said after she figures out the last thing, and yeah, okay, sleeping helps.
The real work takes her a night. All night. And then she’s ready.
The mess from the bathroom is back in the fridge and she’ll worry about it later. In the winter-gray morning light, the kitchen is as clean as she can make it, and the air smells of coffee and toast.
Millie is slumped at the table like a cold little laundry scarecrow, skin all withered and gray. Circulation should fix that right up. She’s dressed, which was awkward, but Jennifer thought waking up naked and confused would be horrible.
She didn’t put any of Millie’s makeup on. Even if she’d known how it would have been too personal.
She lines up the nail polish bottles on the kitchen table like vivid little candies, the brightest thing in the room.
There are reasons why this wouldn’t work, but she doesn’t believe them. They’re bullshit ideas. Nothing as real as Jennifer figuring out how to get machines to where they want to be. Nothing as real as Millie smiling and alight, turning the apartment into a home.
Phosphorus Jack is a jumped-up vigilante, small fry in the grand scheme of things. She’s not a magician or a half-demon. She can’t cast spells, invoke mouths and eyes from the shadow realm or summon pixies and ghosts. She’s not even psychic.
She can’t bring back the dead.
But it’s okay when she can’t do something, as long as there’s a machine that can.
Jennifer holds her breath, flips the switch, and watches to see which bottle Millie will reach for.
© 2020 Frances Rowat
About the Author
Frances Rowat lives in Ontario with her husband, their dog, and a not-quite-startling number of cats. She was born in Canada, and while growing up spent time in England, Algeria, and Switzerland. She spends most of her time behind a keyboard, where she frequently gets lost in details. Her work has appeared in such venues as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Liminal Stories, and PerVisions. She enjoys earrings, fountain pens, rain, and post-apocalyptic settings, and may be found online on Twitter @aphotic_ink or at https://aphotic-ink.com/.