The spectre of death spiraled in Jessie’s DNA. Jessie had, among other ailments, a paralyzing fear of heights, albeit for well-grounded reason. Her father had committed suicide after being laid off from an engineering job that he had held faithfully for 29 years in the north Cincinnati suburbs. Her grandfather, a WWII veteran who served in the Jungles of New Guinea and who spent his life working for Cincinnati Gas and Electric during which time he was electrocuted seven times on the job, suffered a massive heart attack at his retirement party and fell face first into a cake adorned with the words “History, Service and a Bright Future.” Her great grandfather, a brick layer, died from an accident resulting from a sudden onset case of vertigo while constructing the top floor of the Carew Tower. As compensation, Jessie’s great grandmother received a check for exactly $103.33 and a plaque flaunting the abandoned original art deco design of the building. The plaque read: “He died to make the Ohio valley bloom.”
This was Jessie’s history, and she was inescapably shackled to it.
Now, if you're from around here you might call it many different things: fate, science, bad luck, a curse, a glitch in intelligent design, Satan — whatever. Jessie had come to accept her lot in life. Her awareness of this seeming inevitability drove her into obsession with the rational: science, machines, self-discipline, technology — anything that might counteract her destiny with the macabre. So, for an escape from this universe of the methodical, she read comic books. She exercised religiously and rarely considered the illogical, much less the mystical, unless it involved the psychology of the characters in the comic books she read. Romance, modern or traditional, was not an option for a damned soul such as hers.
Yet, Jessie was still determined to make the most of her limited time, be it in a practical and fatalistic way. So on Halloween night, on the deck of the Carew Tower where her great grandfather had died, in a city where dark matter was constantly pushing to abandon zeal in favor of the status quo and with which her fate was inextricably bound, Jessie attended a posh and outrageous costume party dressed as Mary Jane, Peter Parker’s girlfriend in the Spiderman comic series — her intelligent, independent and tenacious comic book role model.
Under the slightly closer full moon (574 feet closer, to be exact) of the French art-deco skyscraper, Jessie scanned the observation deck where local icons, celebrities and politicians enjoyed the brisk breath of fall atop Cincinnati’s most famed tower. Mayor Mark Mallory chatted genially with City Council’s Roxanne Qualls and Charlie Winburn, leaning against the safety rail of the tower. Former mayor and former WLWT newscaster Charlie Luken arm wrestled current WLWT newscaster Courtis Fuller on the counter in the observation deck gift shop while former Bengal Dhani Jones waited to challenge the winner. Center stage by the buffet, Jim Tarbell and Nick Lachey performed a tap dancing routine for special guests John Kasich and Mitch McConnell.
Indeed, the atmosphere was a bit odd, but for Jessie, the party was a welcome change in an otherwise routine and methodical life. If there had been anyone in Jessie’s life who truly knew her, they would have noticed a silent revelry in her face that night.
Jessie scanned the room and noticed a tall, strapping man near the buffet table dressed as Spiderman, who for some reason was trying to stuff a celery stick through his mask into his mouth. She took a moment to relish the absurdity of this witless Spiderman. Then she approached him.
“Hey, isn’t Peter Parker supposed to be pretty clever?” Jessie asked.
“I guess so — he’s a scientist, right?” offered the Spiderman-costumed figure in a slight Southern drawl.
“Well then, use your common spider sense and lift up that mask. The only way you’re gonna get that celery stalk through that thing is if it's in a vegetable smoothie!” Jessie said.
Spiderman paused, celery stick in-hand.
“I don’t want to reveal your identity, but I’ll tell you right now that you just hit the jackpot with me, tiger.” This was Mary Jane’s famous line when meeting Peter Parker for the first time. Jessie mimicked it in her sultriest voice, but her voice, dark as the stroke of midnight, also emitted an infrasonic wistfulness. The vibration was as inaudible as sonic weapon, which Jessie knew would bring about the all too familiar mixture of fear, dizziness and nausea; whence this bumbling hero would sense almost supernaturally that meeting Jessie was like hitting a row of cherries on a slot machine, dispensing its winnings in anthrax coins. Nonetheless, she proceeded to unmask his mouth, unveiling a chin covered by the slightest shade of red stubble.
“Oh, you’re a redhead, too?” she remarked, pointing to her costume wig. “Why don’t you say something? What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”
“It’s just that I’ve got a strange feeling…”
“…Of impending doom?” Jessie interrupted.
“No, that we’ve meet before. Ya know, like kismet,” Spiderman offered.
“Wow, you really are trying to be a hero, aren’t you? You don’t even realize what you’re risking right now,” Jessie warned.
“Well, maybe you don’t know what you’re risking right now,” Spiderman retorted.
Jessie looked at the celery stick in the wannabe hero’s hand. “Hmm, you might be right about that,” she said, picking up another vegetable stick and shoving it in his mouth. Jessie was intrigued, and just as she leaned in to kiss the befuddled adventurer, her glance shot quickly over his shoulder at a man dressed up like a dungeon keeper. His wrist was adorned with the same type of bracelet as hers. Her mind immediately snapped into analytical default. She excused herself and approached the dungeon keeper.
“Hi, I’m Jessie.”
“Nice to meet you, I’m Si.”
“Nice to meet you Sly. Hey, that bracelet? Did you get it from a weird guy near the corner of 6th and Race street?” she asked.
“Actually, no. A few weeks ago a fitness products salesman stopped by the office. Said it’d help me harness my natural energy and improve balance and strength. Since then I’ve felt like a different man. Maybe I can secure one for you, if you like.”
“Uh, no thanks. I’ve already got one, chief,” Jessie retorted.
“Oh, you’ve got one too! Well welcome to the club, then,” Si congratulated.
Jessie scanned the deck. Everyone at the party was wearing the rubber wrist apparel.
Jessie thought back three weeks earlier, when in expectation of her incapacitating fear of heights she had perused some of the hologram balancing charms at the street vending booths hovering around The Chong Inc., a locally owned urban wear shop on Race Street. A vendor whose collection of sunglasses and bracelets sat next to The Chong, and whose eyes were concealed behind skull holograms on the lenses of his sunglasses, told Jessie that holographic technology could harness her natural energy field and would “create an antipodal force to her acrophobic affliction.”
“I’ll take one,” she said, grabbing a bracelet.
The vendor grabbed her wrist. “No. You want this one. It is better," he said calmly.
“Oh-kay… fine,” Jessie said, cautiously taking the recommended bracelet.
“Now, my young miss,” the vendor had told her, sliding the glasses down the slope of his nose to unveil two pale eyes that were like full moons against his dark skin, “the power of the holograph is at its peak on Halloween night, so if you should need to refocus, go to the East.
In the four circles with four gates you will find refuge.” And with that he pushed his circular lenses back to the bridge of his nose.
“What? Why should I find a circle with…” Jessie stopped mid-sentence as she noticed that the lenses had become an impenetrable shade of black. “Nevermind,” she said, and hurried off to her home.
Jessie did not expect the bracelet to actually cure her grave afflictions, but some part of her felt betrayed when her eyes fell out of focus and the guests on the deck became enveloped by a faint luminous haze — the telltale symptom of an oncoming panic attack. She looked over to the gift shop to check on Charlie Luken’s and Courtis Fuller’s test of strength, but looked away as their grimaces blurred into something almost animalistic. Jessie’s world began to spin as the world around her degenerated. She averted her eyes to the center of the deck where John Kasich and Mitch McConnell had begun to comport themselves rather strangely towards the dancing Lachey and Tarbell.
“Well ain’t we a looong waay from the cove…. Watchin’ these couple o’ scalawags sissyin’ away here on this deck?” said John Kasich of the dancing Lachey-Tarbell duo as he pushed his elbow into the ribs of a chuckling Mitch McConnell.
Jessie was suddenly startled some other commotion.
“CHINK! TONK! Damn you! CHONK! Damn you to hell you wasteful demon! …TRONK!”
She stumbled away from the scene of the dance and looked toward the edge of the deck where Councilman Charlie Winburn, golden crucifix in hand, hacked away at the safety rail while Mayor Mark Mallory and Councilwoman Roxanne Qualls looked on, smugly sipping their cosmopolitans.
“What is happening here?” Jessie thought. A moment later she decided it might be best to depart. As she made her way to the elevator the massive scoreboard of Paul Brown Stadium suddenly flickered on across the highway. The screen rose out of the ground, expanding in all directions until its LED lights lit up the entire river basin with an eerie red and white light from its Budweiser advertisement. A shrouded silhouette appeared on the screen and a scornful voice emitted from the loudspeakers across the city, “Until I am released, you shall wear the shackles of my pain!”
The silhouette leaned forward to reveal a face masked from nose to brow.
“Tonight is the night I will have my justice! And this city will pay dearly! Ahahahhahaha!” the voice echoed in maniacal delight. “I am the Phantom of the Opera of Paul Brown Stadium…”
Suddenly one of the guests screamed, “Oh my God, it’s Carson Palmer! Carson has come back!”
“Yes!” screamed Carson, “for REVENGE!”
Carson continued, “Each of you is wearing a holographic bracelet that will, as advertised, focus or harness your natural energy, or whatever. However, what you have not been told is that they will harness only the energy from the evilest depths of your souls. What will ensue will be pure Halloween madness! Your evil energy is, as I speak, being summoned from the darkest of darkness and will merge with you and thusly turn this city into a nightmare town! Ahahahahha!”
“And I warn you. Your negativity is so powerful that I am sure you will find….”
The screen suddenly went black. The city darkened.
The screen then flickered back on, broadcasting the Steelers-Patriots game, where the zombie-filled Three Rivers stadium chanted savagely as Ben Roethlisberger dodged assailants like a ghost and Troy Polamalu decapitated a wide receiver.
Suddenly the screen flickered again and Carson returned. “Sorry. NFL Blackout. Anyway, what was I saying?”
“The bracelets, stupid!” yelled John Kasich, impatiently.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure you will find it quite impossible to remove them! And now, in lieu of your regular programming, I present you HELLCINNATI!”
Sparks flew from the screen and a deep ohm-sound consumed Cincinnnati. The facades downtown reflected the unsettling yellow color emanating from the bracelets. Yellow flashes of evil exploded around the city, especially concentrated at the top of the Carew Tower. Jessie first ducked and then sprawled to the ground to avoid the flashes as she made her way to the elevator. She looked to her left and saw Nick Lachey transform into a dancing zombie from the “Thriller” video while Jim Tarbell continued to tap dance, but now in the form of Frankenstein’s monster. To her right John Kasich and Mitch McConnell had morphed into pirates. She gasped in horror as she watched their skin light ablaze. In the corner, Roxanne Qualls and Mark Mallory began to do the Charlston as Charlie Winburn climbed onto on the edge of the tower, blew a golden trumpet and announced the apocalypse.
Jessie saw her Spiderman beau confused and cowering under the buffet table. He ran to the elevator before she could get there, and then to the stairs. Both were locked. The flaming pirates ran around the penthouse, circling it in the rope from the flag pole. They ran to the edge of the tower, jumped and slid down the ropes to the street below, their skin dropping from their bones, leaving a petrol smelling fog floating over the building and a trail of fire leading to the Brent Spence Bridge.
Behind Jessie, the angel Gabriel-Charlie Winburn, in an attempt to ward off the dancing Frankenstein’s monster, lit a bundle of palm leaves... BOOOOM! The force of the blast lifted Jessie from the deck and pushed her over the side. She extended her hands and felt the abrasive brick cut into her palms. She instinctively scraped her fingernails into the yellow surface, stopping the fall. Her forearms strained under the weight of her dangling body 49 floors above the ensuing chaos below. Jessie was hanging on for her life.
Jessie thought about just letting go. What did it matter? She was cursed anyway. What better night to slip away than this night? At least everyone was cursed together and she wouldn’t feel alone during the final moments of her life. Then, the muscles in Jessie’s forearms fatigued and she fell into the night…
“Ow!” exclaimed the charred and unmasked Spiderman who was laying prone on the top-most setback below the deck’s riverside view. “First you abandon me, then you belly flop onto me from two stories up!”
“Well, I… I didn’t know you were here!” Jessie said defensively, embarrassed by her vulnerable position. “I saw you by the elevator. I thought you had been vaporized by that explosion… Hey, you look really familiar. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Jessie asked with a sincere inquisitiveness, now seeing the hero’s face for the first time.
“I told you... kismet,” reiterated the red-head in Spiderman tights.
“Hmm,” said Jessie, unimpressed. “Anyway, we have to do something about this.”
Jessie’s hand, now aglow with the red light of her bracelet, pointed to the burning bridge over the Ohio, then to a winged Charlie Winburn swooping above the streets and blowing his horn, and then to quad monster boy-band of Lachey, Tarbell and a two-headed Courtis Fuller-Charlie Luken hydra all dancing in the street performing “Because of you” by 98 Degrees.
“Yes, I think you’re right, but what can we do?” conceded Jessie’s sidekick, throwing his hands in the air in a gesture of desperation.
“Hey! That bracelet is just like mine,” exclaimed the refocused Jessie as she pointed at her sidekick’s red-alighted wristwear.
“Yeah, I got it from a strange voodoo sunglasses-vendor-guy, over by some store…”
“The Chong Incorporated!” offered Jessie.
“Yeah! That’s it,” said her Spiderman. “He told me to head to the East if I found myself in distress.”
“He must’ve meant go to The Chong. It sounds Eastern!” said Jessie.
“Okay. Let’s go!” The red-headed stranger grabbed a piece of broken satellite dish and wrapped a power cord around it. He threw it through a lower adjacent window of the PNC building. The two zipped back and forth between the buildings on a piece of gold-colored plating blown loose in the explosion. Within minutes they were on the ground. They raced to the Chong, flashes of yellow pulsing around them. At The Chong, they found a front window had been smashed. Jessie peered into the jagged hole, looking past stretch pants, gold lettered sweatshirts and brightly colored leather jackets. “Looking for someone?” uttered a shadowy silhouette in a Romanian accent.
A befanged Dhani Jones, wearing a green fur coat he had found in the store, stepped into the now pervasive pale yellow glow of the city. The duo hesitated, for such a fan of Cincinnati surely would not do them harm. Dhani spread his arms, his eyes a luminous green, and prepared his fangs to bite. Jessie and her Spiderman, without any further hesitation, turned on their heels and ran south again. Dhani immediately transformed into a bow-tie shaped bat. He lay on the sidewalk for a moment until he realized he could not fly in pursuit in such an inconvenient shape. “Dammit!” he cursed as he morphed back into human form.
Jessie and her hero sprinted eastward down 6th Street past Cadillac ranch. Inside, orange-skinned people danced to bland techno mash-ups of '80s rock hits. The couple averted their eyes in horror. They glanced to their rear. Dhani Jones rounded the corner of Race and 6th peddling an all-black fixed-gear bicycle.
“You’ll never make it to Shanghai!” shouted the fashionable vampire. “Visit my café in Mount Adams!”
The couple approached the eastern side of downtown. Jessie spotted the dungeon keeper, Si, standing guard in front of Shanghai Mama’s, a late night noodle shop.
“Look!” she screamed, pointing at the four wooden mandalas in the foyer behind the whip- and scythe-sporting dungeon keeper. The pair slowed to a desperate walking pace. They glanced backwards. Dhani was almost upon them as they approached the robed jailer with resignation.
“You should be at home watching Leno. You wouldn’t be in this mess if you weren’t out late at night causing trouble,” droned the hooded Si, as he cracked his leather whip on the sidewalk.
Jessie apologized to her man, “I’m sorry I got you involved in this.”
“It’s OK, we did our best.” he said in consolation.
“I don’t even know your name…” confessed Jessie.
Just then Nick Lachey and his posse, thrown off rhythm by the crack of Si’s whip, jaywalked across the street while dancing to and singing “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” They barrelled into Si, the dungeon keeper, exposing the entrance to Shanghai Mama’s.
“Look! The mandalas! The four circles! Let’s go!” shouted Jessie as she grabbed the hand of her nameless beau. They reached the glass box foyer enclosing the four mandalas just before Dhani swooped past, pedals flying freely.
The mandalas and the bracelets illuminated the small room. Jessie, still clutching the hand of her partner, pulled him toward her and kissed him. Paths of light raced through the zig-zagging mazes of the mandalas, disappearing at their center. Time stopped.
…In the distance, the flames atop the Carew Tower and Brent Spence Bridge fluttered like electric candelabras. Odd patterns of yellow streaks, accentuated by the shadows of pirate Kasich and pirate McConnell illuminated the skyline. In front of Shanghai Mama’s, Si was frozen lunging at the window with all his weapons drawn. The troupe of dancers were in various stages of picking themselves up, except for Charlie Luken and Courtis Fuller, who appeared to have been interrupted while kicking each other in their collective shins. And on the scoreboard’s giant screen was Carson's image, half-smiling, half-frowning, in the middle of which was a faint glimmer, a fading orange that rippled like dusk reflecting on an ocean after its days work…
From the couples’ bracelets, a pulse of red light emanated and encompassed the city, reanimating the suspended city and annulling the effect of the bracelets.
On the bridge where the fire continued to rage, Mitch McConnell and John Kasich grew their skin back and ran to the comfort of their respective homes in the South and North. Meanwhile at the restaurant, Luken and Fuller stopped fighting and returned to their jobs lawyering and newscasting, while Lachey and Tarbell danced off into the horizon. Si, still mid-flight, transformed into his lawyerly drab grey suit and smashed through the glass, landing at the feet of the still-kissing couple. (A few months later, as his last act before retiring, Si would declare the kiss obscene. The couple, however, would later be exonerated by a jury.)
The couple ignored Si’s threats as they squinted at the screen looming over the smoldering Carew Tower. An orange, smoky haze made the scoreboard barely visible as it shrunk back into the stadium, its screen displaying only a chair draped with a No. 9 jersey and a masquerade mask.
“Why did he...”
“Because that’s what we asked for,” Jessie said, anticipating her hero’s question.
Suddenly, Dhani, still dressed in the green fur coat, knocked on the unbroken portion of the foyer and apologized, “Sorry about that, guys. I hope you’ll still consider watching my new show.”
He then reached into his shirt pocket and put on a pair of sunglasses. Jessie blinked. In the nanosecond of darkness, skulls flashed where the lenses of the sunglasses had been.
“Y'all like my new look?” Dhani said, and then laughed in wicked triumph as he rode off into the dark.
Jessie turned to her partner, for a moment phased, but then collected, as she’d trained herself for 27 years.
“Hi, I’m Jessie.”
“I’m Andy... Andy Dalton.”
“Hi, Andy... Where do we go now?”
Andy looked up to the skyline. The buildings looked sinister in the backlight of the waning flames, like a killer hiding his criminal history behind a shadowy smile. “I think we have a lot of work to do here,” he said chuckling.
“Hmmm. Right, that.” Jessie said, “but on the tower, I … I fell on you. Didn’t you think it was strange? I mean, how did you...”
“I told you, kismet.”
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