Glass Houses

Glass Houses

Victoria Costello

Glass Houses
Synopsis

Glass Houses tells the story of a celebrity astrologer who predicted the annus horribilis that became 2020 but couldn't stop its painful fallout from hitting home. Sunny's story then becomes a parable for those of us who, pre-pandemic, liked to think we had some control over our lives but emerged from this shit show of a year a bit wiser.

No one, not even Sunny Fox, knew that Sunday, December 22, 2019, marked the start of the final week of the before times. Leading astrologers around the world, Sunny included, had seen and discussed among themselves the fact that the planetary transits due in 2020 signified a terrible reckoning. They could not agree on the precise kind of comeuppance they expected to be visited upon humanity—just that it would be very, very bad.

On that Sunday night, Sunny sat alone behind a wall of plexiglass in her studio-hired limo. She’d lost track of how long it had been languishing between two of its brethren on rain-slicked Hollywood Boulevard. At this rate, she’d miss the red carpet—her whole reason for coming. Sitting forward, nose pressed to the partition, she saw her destination—the pagoda façade of the cineplex she still thought of as Grauman’s Chinese Theater—on the next block.

“Salim, pull over here, please,” she said through the intercom.

Her regular driver, a Kurdish refugee, turned on the interior light and eyed her in the rearview mirror. “You walk?” His tone was disbelieving, static crackled from the speaker while he waited for her answer.

With her long gown gathered in a fist, an image of her stiletto catching on a crack in the sidewalk gave her pause. On closer inspection, the rain had become a drizzle.

“Never mind,” she said and dropped back on the seat. Salim nodded and snapped off the intercom, restoring silence to her sealed chamber and fueling her unease.

Sucking air into her lungs, exhaling slowly, she laid her forehead on the limo’s tinted window and latched her attention to a roving searchlight as it bathed the neighborhood in refracted color. Trails of red brake lights, the purple neon sign for Hardcore Ink tattoo parlor, a floodlit souvenir stand displaying sweatshirts with the faces of Michael Jackson and Elvis. It’s all so tawdry. As if she hadn’t been ferried through this seamy stretch of town to walk a red carpet a dozen times before. Yes, but how did it come to this? A small voice persisted. The plot of her own life story posed no mystery to Sunny. But she needed a starting place if she was going to retrieve the soul she’d lost somewhere on the way to becoming the Sunny Fox—America’s favorite, Oprah-approved, astrologer to the stars. The timing for her revival of this long abandoned project couldn’t have been worse.

The first signs of a panic attack—throat in a vise, quickening heart, blood rushing to her head—were off and running before she could hit the brakes. Covering her face with both hands, she massaged her brow, to no avail. Her adult mask had slipped, revealing the strange little girl hiding in the broom closet of her family’s trailer in Lone Pine. Since Mamma being gone was her fault, the closet was the only place she could cry without someone giving her a dirty look, saying she should have kept her damn mouth shut.

“Looks like you’re up, Ms. Fox.”

Salim’s canned voice rescued her from the memory, shaken but relieved as he pulled to the curb of the world-famous sidewalk marked with the handprints of dead actors, now swarming with live bodies.

“Thank you, Salim.” She pushed a twenty-dollar bill through the portal. “If you go to your regular place on Highland for a Turkish Coffee, can you me pick up a couple of baklava to take home? I won’t be more than an hour.” He gave her a knowing grin and a salute.

She affixed an attenuated smile to her face meant to express her transcendence of the evening’s superficialities without appearing critical. She was one link in a moviemaking food chain, but she was the one with the special sauce: celestially sourced guidance virtually assuring the success of Paul Stern’s latest superhero movie and igniting the careers of hundreds who participated on- and off-screen—as long as the director and his studio follow her advice to the letter. If proven correct, Sunny stood to cement her reputation and only add to the list of celebrities willing to hand over $3,000 a month to have her on speed dial.

Give it a rest, she told her higher self. Let’s just get through this. She recognized the dodge for what it is, along with the low odds that her good intentions would survive the night. At least not without another jarring provocation. Sometimes she worried by thinking this way she’d dare fate to lob one at her from left field. But there were only so many hours in the day, and she was just one overeducated, sixty-year-old woman who, without the good fortune the heavens had rained down upon her and a will of steel, would likely have been sitting in that trailer watching this nonsense unfold on TV.

A sultry wannabe actor in a tux opened the limo door and hooked Sunny’s arm. She ascended the curb and wobbled—damn these shoes—even if they were the perfect shade to match the embroidered violets on her sheer bodice. Absolutely no one was going to notice her feet or her bodice, not with actual movie stars leading the procession. A wave of clicks and flashes, the paparazzi training their cameras on the nubile actress who plays the film’s rebel commander, left Sunny half blind and dazed. “Shit,” she said loud enough for him to hear, but the man holding her arm didn’t move a muscle of his bronzed, sculpted face.

She let go of him, steadied herself, and joined the pageant. The entrance to the theater was in spitting distance when the line halted for another round of flashes and clicks. She looked down at her feet and was rewarded with the sight of Marilyn Monroe’s handprints in cement. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the date 6-26-53 written in cursive below her signature. Like a midwestern tourist, she blinked, disbelieving as goosebumps rose on her bare arms. Oh, to have someone to share the irony. “Look who’s here with us,” she effused to the twenty-something couple standing behind her. Drawing only limp smiles, she took their jaded indifference as a corrective to her own.

The procession had moved forward a yard or two when she heard her name. Off to the right of the red carpet, a hive of activity under a tent, worker bees hovering with cameras and lights set on tripods. Is that the reporter from Star Tracks? A young woman wearing a mannish, iridescent suit, short, spiky hair streaked turquoise, appeared to be motioning for Sunny to come to her stakeout. The studio publicist had asked her to be sure to give that show a sound bite. Sunny made a B-line for the young woman, relieved to see the correct logo on her hand-held mic and a name printed on the laminated pass hanging from a lanyard around her neck.

“Jess, it’s great to see you again,” Sunny enthused. They performed an air-kiss.

“Thanks for giving up your place in line. Are you ready?” With Sunny’s nod, Jess raised the mic to just below her chin. “Hey, folks, I’ve got Sunny Fox here, and, if you don’t know, she’s Paul Stern’s Merlin. Maybe if we ask nicely, she’ll give us the inside story on World’s End.” With a megawatt smile she said, “You look great, as always.”

“Thank you, dear. The turquoise hair is new, isn’t it?”

“It’s a mood.” Jess touched her hair, laughed, flipped to a serious expression. “Shall we talk about the movie? A little bird tells me it’s your fault we’re standing out here in the rain shivering our butts off tonight.”

Sunny offered a conspiratorial smile. “You might be a little bit right about that, Jess.”

“So, I read your December column and I have to admit I’m confused.” Jess paused for a strategic pout. “If, as you say, the planets currently lining up are the worst in, like, fifteen hundred years, why did you tell Paul he had to release World’s End now, like smack in the middle of this mash-up?” She waved her free hand at the palm tree fronds moving in a brisk wind as if to suggest the two of them were braving the dead of winter. “Isn’t that a risk?”

Sunny surmised Jess didn’t actually read her column, but she had read the studio press release which gave Sunny’s ultimatum to Paul as a talking point. She recalled his first reaction when she issued it to him. “That’s insane. Do you know how much in grosses my movies had to bring in for me to own Memorial Day weekend? Now you want me to give up that real estate because of fucking Pluto?She went on to tell him what happened the last few times the same planets got together, either as a group or in pairs, in the sign of Capricorn—Cortés set smallpox loose in the Americas, WWI, 911, the 2008 financial crash—and warned him that when it came to 2020, the risk would only grow larger as the year wore on. After a long think, he took her advice.

Sunny pulled a silk shawl tight around her shoulders. “Well, Jess, like every other astrologer worth her salts, I compared my client’s natal transits with the position of the planets on the dates in question, which in Paul’s case, were blinking as bright as klieg lights.”

“And what did they tell you?”

"It's simple if you understand the language of the cosmos. The explosive meet-up of Pluto, the destroyer, with Saturn, the planet of established structures and karmic consequences in Saturn’s ruling sign of Capricorn, is going to change our world in ways we can only imagine.”

“Okay, so I ask you again, why would anybody release a movie when all hell is about to break loose?”

“Because Paul’s story resonates strongly with the combustible implications of this alignment, which makes this an ideal time for a worldwide audience to appreciate his vision of a planet in chaos, with humanity’s future hanging on a ragtag team of rebels who take on the powers that be to save it.”

“Wow. I can’t wait. Thanks, Sunny.” Jess spun around to face the camera. “So, what do you guys think? Can anyone look at the planets and predict what’s coming, or is life just one colossal game of chance? I’ll let you wrestle with that question. This is Jess Lally reporting for Star Tracks.

“That’s a wrap,” Jess said to the cameraman, who immediately killed the light, leaving them in elongated shadows on the rapidly emptying sidewalk. “Shall we go in?”

“Not me. I’ve seen it twice. You’ve got a treat in store.”

“I’m excited. Listen, I’d love to talk with you some more. I mean about what you do.”

“Of course.” She assumed the girl wanted a free reading. “Call my office and we’ll set something up.”

Sunny scanned the line of waiting limos looking for Salim. Not finding him, she remembered a bit of business of her own she could take care of. Jess was still there, chatting with a guy under the press tent.

“Woohoo, Jess,” she yelled.

She turned around and cupped her ear. Sunny waved her over.

Jess nodded and came back. “What’s up?”

“Did you know my first book is about to be rereleased in a 20th-anniversary edition?”

“Uh, no, I’d love to read it.”

Ah, so she’d never heard of Everyday Astrology, even though it spent sixty-five weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list. Then again, that was 2002, and Jess wasn’t a day over thirty.

“Just contact the publisher and they’ll send along a copy. Does that work for you?”

“Sure. So, we’ll talk soon.”

Walking to the curb, sidestepping puddles and cracks, Sunny heard Salim’s booming voice and followed it to an empty stretch of sidewalk beyond the theater entrance. She got closer and realized he was holding his cell phone at arm’s length while moving from one set of handprints to the next, all the while narrating in Kurdish. No doubt FaceTiming with his mother in Turkey, whom he called every day. Sunny’s eyes moistened. She felt dizzy and grabbed a railing meant to keep fans away from the red carpet. The longer she watched him be the dutiful son, her breathing grew shallower. Ascribing her reaction to guilt would have been too simple. Fending it off proved more difficult as she took in this man, who’d become more than a fixture in her daily routine, meet undeserved punishment with superhuman grace. The fact that Salim was in this country not out of choice but under threat of arrest by the Turkish police state for his pro-independence activities hung on him like a shadow that never overtook his effervescent personality. When he looked up, she waved and yelled, “Finish your call. I’m fine.”

On the ride home, she dropped her head to her chest and rotated it clockwise, then counterclockwise and dropped back on the seat. Looking through the moonroof at a cloud-covered sky, she visualized the rings of Saturn approaching diminutive but mighty Pluto. Although neither planet could be seen with the naked eye, she knew they were within a five-degree orb of each other in Capricornus—the constellation ancient sky watchers thought resembled a horned goat. In a voice just above a whisper, she addressed the two planets: “I know what you’re up to. Do what you have to do, but please be gentle with me.” It was more of a prayer than a request. She of all people knew that karma was coming for everyone. Her past due tally would be revealed soon enough.

The fact that she didn’t know where she stood with her higher power caused Sunny both discomfort and shame. The relationship had begun in the same closet where she’d cried until she ran out of tears and a soothing voice surprised her with its presence.

“I can see you in the dark,” the voice said.

“No, you can’t . . . How?” Sunny asked after curiosity overtook her astonishment.

“Because you’re made of my stardust.”

As a child who’d spent hundreds of hours studying the desert night sky, the words made a certain sense to Sunny. Overlooking the fact that the voice was female, she called it God. It was only later, after she’d achieved her own following, that Sunny renamed the God of her youth her higher power. She did it largely to appease her religion-adverse readers and clients, but something got lost in the translation. Eventually Sunny could no longer hear the voice, no matter what she called it. Practicing astrology gave her a lifeline. But the more distant relationship with her old source of succor made her feel like an angel cast out of heaven, or, at her most despondent, like a dumped lover.

She sighed with relief as Salim pulled into the winding driveway of her asymmetrical glass house overlooking the 405 freeway in Bel Air. Its bold, modern design—offering views of the neighboring Getty Museum and, on rare clear days, downtown L.A.—had been a source of both gratification and discomfiture since she bought it ten years ago.

“Have a Merry Christmas, Ms. Fox,” Salim said as he passed the herd of white, wire-mesh reindeer on her desert-themed front lawn.

“Thank you, Salim.”

He opened her door and handed over the bag of baklava.

“Give my love to your mother and let’s all savor the peace while we can.”

With a nod and a smile tinged with sadness, he said, “Sipas dekem, shaw khosh.”

Sunny met his eyes, hoping he would receive the empathy she felt for him, despite her insufficient words. Since he’d confided his troubles to her, she liked to think they shared a special bond—the bowdlerized wound of banishment from a place and people who were once home. No matter the defenses she’d erected, this time of year could be relied on to tear the scabs off. She imagined the same might be true for him.

***

A subdued tone hovered over the dinner table as Sunny and her second husband, Dan, hosted Gabriel, his wife Kat, and their daughter, Rory, on New Year’s Day. Christened Aurora in Sunny’s honor, although neither used the name, twelve-year-old Rory appeared oblivious to adult concerns as she hammered the blue crab on her plate with a mallet, picking off chunks to eat with her fingers.

Meanwhile, Gabriel and Kat showed polite interest in the details of Sunny’s upcoming book tour. “Twenty-five cities in eighteen days, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.”

“Jesus, Mom, why don’t you tell them to lighten up your schedule? You’ve earned the right by now.”

“That’s just how these things are done. Better to get it over quickly.” She turned to Rory. “So, love bug, how was Big Bear?”

Still attending to her crab, Rory offered monosyllabic answers to Sunny’s questions about the holiday ski trip she just took with her parents.

Until Kat intervened. “Earth to Rory . . . We were there a whole week, can you give Grandma a few more details?”

Rory looked up, surprised to find all eyes on her. “All right! So I skied the advanced trails and only fell once or twice. How’s that?”

“I’m impressed,” Dan said.

Kat shared an eye-roll with Gabriel.

Sunny tried to wrap her head around the testy preteen who snuck in and stole her sweet granddaughter when she wasn’t looking. It was too bad they didn’t spend time alone together like they used to. Between her client readings and Rory’s school and track meets, their visits had been tough to schedule. She vowed to try harder—after the book tour.

“Thanks for getting us a table last night,” Kat said to Dan. “Your prix fixe menu was delicious.”

“I’m glad you had a good time. I wasn’t going to have you stand outside for an hour waiting. Can you believe people are willing to do that on an ordinary weeknight?”

“It’s called word of mouth, Dan,” Sunny teased. His farm-to-table restaurant, Gather, seemed to finally be earning back their sizeable investment—her cash, his sweat—as a preferred eatery for the A-list.

“I’ve been serving the same menu for two years—with no waiting list.” Dan lifted his wine glass. “Hey, I’ll take it. To 2019, a damn good year. Here’s hoping 2020 is better. I’ve always preferred even numbers.”

While Gabriel raised his glass a few inches off the table and managed a lackluster here, here, Sunny stared at her husband in disbelief. They’d all made a gallant effort to pretend there wasn’t a ghost in the room, but it’s as if Anya’s empty chair had just cleared its throat. Dan’s forehead creased as he scanned their faces, looking for the cause of his apparent censure until he caught on. "Oh, I didn’t mean . . . ”

Sunny pushed her chair back from the table. “It’s all right, Dan. Both things can be true at the same time. Who’s up for torta cokolada? I made it this morning.”

“You baked?” Rory asked.

“It does happen a few times a year,” Sunny answered.

“Once tops.” Dan corrected her, appropriately, since he brought home the majority of their meals.

Sunny put a hand on his shoulder as she went to the kitchen.

Kat’s pale-faced grimace when she returned with the cake extended the uncomfortable moment. Torta cokolada was one of Anya’s signature recipes, a many-layered walnut sponge cake with creamy chocolate icing. Sunny had appropriated the recipe back in the day when Anya was her live-in cook and nanny to Gabriel. She put the cake on the table and lifted a knife. “Preferences?”

“Make mine a double,” said Rory, unaware of the cake’s lineage.

“I’ll second that,” said Gabriel, sliding his arm around Kat’s shoulder. Sunny appreciated Gabriel’s gesture and the fact that she—with Anya’s help—had raised a sensitive man.

“I’ll have a tiny piece,” Kat said.

After an extended silence while they ate their cake, Dan asked Gabriel about his fieldwork in Africa. Gabriel explained they were there to measure polio vaccine uptake in one of the continent’s last endemic countries. He didn’t mention the name of the country and now Sunny couldn’t recall it. Their names changed so often, she rationalized. Mother and son had exchanged regular emails, but Sunny was far more interested in how Gabriel was coping with his chronic asthma, worrying he’d have a bad attack and not have access to proper care—they didn’t dwell on geography.

“Where were you again, hon?” she asked him now.

“South Sudan, Grandma!”

“Thank you, Rory.” Sunny gave her granddaughter a wink, which Rory tolerated without comment.

Losing Anya to breast cancer in October, though not unexpected, had been a devastating blow for all of them. Sunny reprimanded herself for being less than sensitive to the fact that they each grieved in different ways. For Sunny, it helped when Anya’s name came up in casual conversation as if to keep her present, whereas Kat withdrew whenever their talk went to her mother.

Even for L.A., theirs was a complicated family. After a decade in the country as Sunny’s employee, Anya secured her green card and promptly sold a romance novel, eventually achieving a devoted following and selling six more, while remaining Sunny’s closest friend. The two women were delighted when their adult children fell in love, married, and produced the granddaughter whose care they shared while Gabriel was a medical resident and Kat had another year of law school. The fact that these two grandmothers turned the tables on their children and fell into a love affair of their own surprised everyone, themselves included. The relationship became an open secret, accepted by everyone in their close circle—including Dan, for whom Sunny’s ardor had cooled long before Anya rekindled it, as his had for her, although neither wanted the disruption of a divorce.

“It’s been gratifying,” Gabriel said about his research. “Our small army of doulas got great uptake on the vaccine.”

“What’s a doula?” Rory asked.

“They’re nurses or traditional healers, mostly women who’ve earned the trust of their communities. The model has been in use in Africa and Asia for decades but doesn’t get the attention it’s due. I’m writing up our results for publication.”

“So where to next?” Dan asked Gabriel in that slightly formal tone he’d never quite moved past with his stepson of fifteen years. “Have you got another project in the pipeline?”

Gabriel tilted his chair back so it balanced on two rear legs. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try being a househusband for a while.”

Dan did a double take.

“For the time being, UCLA is keeping me on as a guest lecturer in the medical school. But I’m not sure research is where I want to be in the long run.”

“Well, I’m not a bit surprised,” said Sunny.

Gabriel tilted his head to the side and gave his mother a knowing smile. “I think I know where this is headed.”

“Okay, I did see it in your chart. But hear me out. Before your thirty-fifth birthday, your Taurus sun enters the fourth house, representing home and family, where it crosses your north node of destiny. When I saw it, I thought maybe you and Kat might buy a new house, or have another baby.” Sunny paused to take in Gabriel’s look of bemusement and Rory’s dropped jaw. “Those are just possibilities. Whatever happens, I see your life path taking a sharp turn this Spring.”

“I vote for the baby,” Rory said, drawing a smile from Sunny, who shared Rory’s hope, and a chuckle from Dan.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Gabriel said, kissing the top of Rory’s head.

He gave Sunny a wink, reassuring her that she hadn’t overstepped and, as she saw it, summing up their unconditional love for each other. Given her stop-and-start history of mothering him, Sunny considered their bond nothing short of a miracle.

“At least we’ve paid off our student loans,” added Kat, who appeared unsurprised by Gabriel’s announcement and was keeping her distance from the baby question.

“We should probably get going,” Kat said to the table. “I have to be in court first thing in the morning.”

Gabriel stood and reached for the dessert plates. “I’ll clear these.”

“Thank you, dear.”

Kat turned to Sunny. “I almost forgot. There’s a box for you in the car.”

“Oh. What’s in it?”

“I have no idea. Mom taped it up and put your name on it. I’ve been meaning to drop it off. I’ll go get it now.”

Sunny stood quickly. “I’ll come with you and bring it directly to the studio.”

Whatever Anya put in a box for her to see only after she was gone, Sunny’s inclination was to find out without curious others looking on.

***

A week later, the box lay untouched in a corner of the studio. Sunny sat in her Eames lounger opposite a fifty-something woman with a spine as straight as an I-beam. Camille Lewiston, a new client, pulled a beige gabardine skirt hem down over her knees and pinned her legs at a sharp angle to the seat of her wing chair—the seat Sunny reserved for her clients. When she attempted to make eye contact with her, Camille immediately vacated the premises, leaving a doppelgänger in her place. Syncing her breath to this woman’s chaotic energy field proved no small task, akin to catching a wave on a surfboard, or so Sunny guessed, recalling Gabriel’s description of the experience.

Sunny allowed her pupils to dilate so Camille’s delicate features disappeared into the pool of sunlight spilling in behind her. The red-checked calico curtains framing the window were the only reminder Sunny permitted of the mobile home in the high desert where she’d grown up. Her mother, sitting at the kitchen table holding the neighbor ladies’ palms, dispensing remedies for their invisible ailments: A cheating husband. The crushing worry of debt. A rebellious daughter. Then there was the snooty woman from L.A. who started all the trouble. Sunny acquired her curiosity about people and her ability to read faces (not palms) from watching her mother perform small miracles at that table. Alas, the memory evoked no gratitude in her now, only discomfort.

She refocused on her client, surprised when an image belonging to Camille slipped into her mind’s eye. It didn’t happen very often anymore, and when it did, Sunny treated it as an annoyance. She didn’t advertise herself as a psychic. Her business card clearly stated her services: Astrology reader and interpreter. For entertainment purposes only. She couldn’t help it if her clients insisted on attaching greater powers to what she did for them.

This image wouldn’t take no for an answer, so she gave in and shared it. “I see a letter with a cherry red-wax seal.” She opened her eyes to gauge Camille’s response.

“I found it on the top shelf of my husband’s closet.”

“Did you recognize the sender?”

“There’s only a term of endearment.” Camille’s effortful swallow seemed like the only chink in her china doll armor. She had an almost too delicate nose that peaked like the curly cue on a soft dip cone. Her cheekbones were sculpted planes containing only hints of wrinkles, framed by a blonde bob. Sunny guessed Camille came upon her beauty the old-fashioned way. What, she wondered, was driving her obsession about an old letter sent to her husband even if, as Sunny presumed, it came from an affair previously unknown to her?

Camille’s withholding of information to test her abilities was typical of the cat and mouse game that went on between an astrologer and a new client. Camille had been referred by one of Sunny’s regulars, the stable of twenty or so ladies, with a few enlightened men like Paul, who kept her on retainer for monthly readings and crisis calls. Cheaper than a Beverly Hills gym membership and more likely to be used, Sunny liked to point out. Camille shot to the top of her waiting list because she was willing to pay the hundred-dollar premium for today's emergency session. Camille Lewiston. The name sounded vaguely familiar. And what was up with this husband of hers? Sunny didn’t ask. She’d found it better to wait for such information to be revealed when the client chose.

Camille reached into her white, Prada leather purse and withdrew a faded, light blue envelope addressed with the flowing ink of a fountain pen. When she turned it face down on her lap, the remains of a cherry wax seal were apparent. During the several seconds neither of them spoke, the wax appeared to melt and drip onto Camille’s hand, indicating a heated situation.

“Shall I read it to you?” Camille asked.

“If you wish.”

She removed a single, royal, blue-bordered sheet and laid it on her lap. From her seat, Sunny couldn’t make out the handwriting, but she took note of the embossed heart at the top of the page.

“‘Richard, This baby means so much to me. He or she will be a living reminder of you for me and me alone. I expect nothing from you. We can go our separate ways in peace. Please don’t contact me. Your wife and my husband need never know what happened between us. And I won’t tell the child.’”

“Is there a date?”

Camille maintains her composure as she reads. “January 28, 1991.”

Sunny calculated the current age of the child born of this union to be twenty-nine.

“How long have you and your husband been married?”

“Coming up on thirty years.”

“I see.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Sunny waited. Camille would soon spill the beans, or as many as she cared to.

“My husband will soon announce he’s running for governor of California.”

Ah. Since Hillary’s crushing loss in 2016, Sunny had avoided politics. Racking her brain, she now recalled hearing of Richard Lewiston as a businessman and a mover and shaker in Republican politics, apparently now a candidate.

“If he’s this sloppy with me, any nosy reporter will nail this story before election day. What can I do to squash it?”

From a side table, Sunny picked up Camille’s natal chart and another showing her progressed transits. While preparing them, she’d noticed Camille’s natal Saturn had entered the fourth house, representing home and family, putting it in a frictional square to the Capricorn stellium, soon to include Mercury, the messenger planet. The way Sunny read these aspects, a major revelation and a possible rearrangement of Camille’s domestic life loomed. The woman had every right to worry. Now Sunny saw the masthead of the LA Times, with a photo of the Mr. and Mrs. Lewiston under a headline in a bold, one-inch font, suggesting hideously bad press to come.

“As you know, I’m not a marriage counselor. But I strongly suggest you and your husband have a frank discussion about this affair and the child that came of it because this situation is about to come to a head. And I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

As Camille’s eyebrows rose and her lips formed a straight line, her face transformed into that of a cat whose whiskers were standing at attention. Sunny received Camille’s unspoken thought and a chill ran up her spine. Nothing legal, you mean.

Camille paid with three hundred dollar bills and left without requesting a follow-up appointment, leaving Sunny genuinely puzzled. What was this woman up to? One thing she felt certain of: there was more than marital friction going on with Richard and Camille Lewiston.

Mick, her chocolate brown labradoodle scratched at the door. “The coast is clear, come to Mama,” she cooed to him. Mick was selective about which clients’ readings he wanted to observe from his dog bed under the picture window. After sniffing Camille on her way in, he showed no interest in joining them. Maybe Mick missed his calling as an FBI bomb sniffer.

As if to offer his negative response to the FBI idea, Mick lay on his back, paws in the air, his way of asking for a belly scratch. “You lazy thing,” she said as she joined him on the floor.

While scratching Mick’s underside, Sunny’s line of sight went to a framed print on her wall of the fifth-century astrologer and philosopher, Hypatia. Acquired when Sunny, then Aurora Cameron, was a grad student, Hypatia—the woman and the portrait—have remained touchstones for Sunny, helping keep disparate phases of her life connected in a single thread.

Like the Sunny Fox of today, Hypatia of Alexandria read the horoscopes of her city’s elite class. Unlike Sunny, Hypatia lived in a time when astrology was a respected branch of science, fundamental to astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Sunny made Hypatia’s life and martyrdom the subject of the dissertation she wrote for her Ph.D. in Late Antiquity. She then championed Hypatia’s place in history to the point where it eroded her own standing as a scholar. Getting Hypatia the credit that she’d been robbed of by church and state became a decades-long obsession for Sunny. Hypatia the woman evolved into an alter ego, with the philosopher’s choices and the persecution she suffered because of them, running like a movie on a constant loop at the edge of her awareness.

The print on her wall was reproduced from a tiny section of a Rafael fresco in the Vatican called “The School of Athens.” The fresco imagined a gathering of renowned philosophers—Plato, Aristotle, and their peers throughout antiquity—into which the artist sneaked a single woman, Hypatia. In Rafael’s rendering, she’d dressed in a chastely white robe, long brown locks descending over her breasts. Although famously celibate—virtuous the preferred euphemism—Sunny had often speculated about who this reportedly beautiful woman might have secretly loved. She had an adoring father who made her his scholastic heir, students who revered her as a goddess, but no known consort with whom she shared intimacy.

Why have I always been so hung up on this question? Sunny wondered as she eyed Hypatia and absently rubbed Mick’s stomach. Why not let the woman be a hundred-percent devoted to a quest for truth? Then, as now, those relationships would have only held her back. Which begged the question: what did Hypatia—or any other woman—have to lose or gain by not having them in her life?

For Sunny, who liked to think she’d given up the quest for respect that dogged her as a young scholar and had just found and lost the love of her life, the question was different and boiled down to this. Would the memory of an all loving God be enough to sustain her in the trying times ahead? Or would the things she’d done and left undone drag her back down into the darkness?

About the Author

Victoria Costello

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Victoria Costello is an Emmy and ASJA award winning science journalist and memoirist turned fiction writer based in San Francisco Bay Area. Having come to fiction late in life and career, she is bent on exploring the stranger sides of life that only fiction can mine.