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a handbook for stalker removal, as written by by madeline cobb

Chapter Text

Shawn Wesley mentally goes over the facts of Madeline Cobb as he drives down the road towards her home in West Virginia. She’s a reclusive wood sculptor, whose art had been famous over a decade ago and recently exploded back onto the mainstream with an exhibit in the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. While Shawn likes art, he doesn’t particularly care for sculptures themselves - he prefers painting and photography to the 3D mediums. But Madeline Cobb is his white whale. He’d called her when he was just starting out at Art in America for some tiny puff piece months after her huge comeback, nothing to get excited over. Hello ma’am, how is it to be back into the spotlight after all these years? Do you like being an artist that LGBT youth and artists of color are looking up to? Thank you and goodbye!

His emails had been ignored, so he’d called her. He got through his spiel over the phone of who he was and who he worked for and she’d said no thank you, simple, curt, then hung up. He waited a day before calling again, to give her a bit to think it over. This time she laughed, big, loud, bawdy, with more than a few snorts, then blown a raspberry into the receiver and hung up on him, still cackling. He’d watched her fame expand as he slowly rose through the ranks from being a no-namer to someone respected. 

She’d had an exhibit in the MOMA titled Same as it Ever Was - on found family, the main piece a group of people sitting together, touching, relaxed, herself in the middle with a bulky muscular man in her lap, laughing into his neck. One in the Whitney, Exhilaration - he hadn’t looked at her statements but he does remember a few pieces, two women of two different woods, one bright and the other almost grey, curling into each other and kissing. A man in deep mahogany, holding a handgun tilting towards the ground, his mouth soft and open, eyes peeled back wide in fear. And, Shawn’s personal favorite, a long haired woman throwing a javelin, her body tilted back onto one leg in a shining arc, her grin incandescent, carved from a soft pale wood. There was a third in LACMA most recently, titled Dryadic , with a new focus on bodies in nature, one carved out of an almost red wood, a tall asian woman and a shorter woman with an afro tangled up in the roots of a cherry tree like they’d grown out of them.

And, well. He might have been sort of mad at her. He’d almost gotten to her at the Whitney, slid in beside her with a smile and an extra glass of champagne, but the second the word “hello” had left his mouth she’d spooked like a rabbit and was somehow across the room and mid conversation with somebody else in about two seconds. He didn’t get within five feet of her for the rest of the night. She had some sort of power to manifest what felt like a throng of servers between them both every time he got close. However, Shawn’s never been one to take no for an answer.

So he emailed her. And emailed her. And harassed his boss about getting assigned to do anything on Madeline Cobb. Her Wikipedia page was almost blank , for chrissakes, someone needed to get some information to fill it out with. And when he got the go-ahead from his boss for a biopic he started calling her. And calling her. And calling her some more. Most of them he got hung up on quickly, if he was answered at all, which just added fuel to his fire.

Once, someone answered by screaming into the receiver like they were being murdered, making him jump and spill his coffee (a venti caramel macchiato, with skim milk, an extra shot of espresso, extra-hot, with extra-whip, and sugar-free) all over his favorite paisley button down and his nice slacks. He very nearly sent her his dry cleaning bill. Another time someone pretended he had called a gay sex hotline and caused him to get shouted at by his boss, who did not believe that Madeline Cobb was engaging in psychological warfare via phone calls until he had someone else call the same number. At another point, a woman waited for him to finish his greeting just to tell him, in an extremely polite, delicate voice, that his LinkedIn profile photo made him look like a rat on meth and hung up.

And then, finally :

“If she does this stupid interview with you will you stop calling?” A man asked him before he’d even begun his speech. 

Shawn blinked. “Are you Madeline Cobb’s agent?” he asked.

The man huffed at him, like it wasn’t a totally reasonable question. “Sure, let's go with that. If she agrees to this, will you stop calling us?”

“Of course,” Shawn replied. “Is she free to come up to New York at any time within the next few weeks? If not, I can make it a phone interview -,”

There was some hushed conversation on the other end that Shawn strained to hear. “No, no,” the man said, moments later. “We’ll only do it if you come down here.” There was another few moments of whispering. Oh, smart , said the man, muffled, and then back to Shawn, “You can come take pictures. Just you, though. No photographer.”

While that wasn’t preferred, something told him attempting to compromise on this would go nowhere. Shawn said, “Sure.” And so, almost two months later - the only time their schedules would align - he’s in the back end of West Virginia, using fucking printed out directions like it’s 2007 again because his phone hasn’t picked up any signal in what feels like years. Madeline’s ‘agent’ had instructed him to do that before he left, because apparently Madeline fucking Cobb, his Moby Dick, loves being off the grid so much she moved into the national radio quiet zone . It feels more and more like he’s being lured out here to be murdered. He can never pick the easy ones to get obsessed with. His ass is asleep because he’s been in the car for over seven hours , and no matter how many pee breaks he stops for he can’t get it to stop being numb. His quote passion project unquote couldn’t milk a plane ticket out of his boss.

He finally gets to the end of the road. There’s a big wooden sign swinging at the end of a long gravel driveway that says Amnesty Lodge in a skilled soldered freehand. No Vacancy hangs beneath it. Large flowers are carved into the polished wood. How kitsch. Cobb runs a hotel, apparently. Strange, for someone so anti-social. He’ll ask if someone is thinking about leaving later that night, it’d be so much more convenient to just stay here rather than get back into his car and go to the hotel room he’s rented in Snowshoe. 

The building itself is beautiful, if you like things that involve the words ‘rustic’ and ‘wooden’ and ‘natural’. Shawn would not consider himself a fan of any of those things, so to him, it’s basically a glorified log cabin. He gets out of his car, pops his knees and his hips, and then stands for a moment, breathing in the clean, rich air. Man , Shawn thinks, this place needs some asphalt

It’s humid, the late afternoon air swampy and hot, nearly unbearably so after the air conditioning of his rental car, but he soldiers through it for the sake of looking professional. He pulls out his notebook - some people have graduated to using their phones but he still likes the satisfaction of paper notes - and scribbles some vague descriptions down for later, tries to phrase it in a way that sounds nice and not overwhelmingly rural . He’s about to head inside the hotel when he spots her.

Madeline Cobb.

She looks older than he remembers her being at Exhilaration by a good few years, at least double his age, in her mid to late 60’s. She’d been in a black suit, blue tie, her hair back in a sleek four strand braid, and her shoes had been just a little too practical for the environment - the laces went up a tad bit too high. She had a scar going diagonally through her left eyebrow and a vertical one on her chin, bisecting both her lips. In the present, her hair is loose and curly around her shoulders, bouncing slightly as she walks towards him with long, purposeful strides, having gone almost entirely grey. She’s wearing a faded plum t-shirt and stained jeans, and thick green rubber boots that go up to her knees. She has a cane now.

She waves at him, and he smiles, but does not wave back.

“Howdy!” she says cheerily, stopping in front of him, and Lord does her accent come through strong in just that one word. “You must be -,”

“Shawn Wesley, yes,” he says, sticking his hand out for her to shake. “But you can just call me Shawn. And you’re Madeline Cobb. Can I call you Madeline?”

“You absolutely cannot!” she says in such a bright, happy way that it takes a moment for Shawn to register what she said. She shakes his hand. Her grip makes something in his palm pop painfully, and he has to bite down on a yelp. “How was the drive? New York City’s ain’t exactly a short trip from here.”

“Oh, it was fine,” he says, trying to discreetly shake his hand out, feeling like he’d just slammed it in a car door. “Exceptionally scenic. Plenty of rolling hills, very quaint.”

Cobb grins at him, stretching the scar on her lips oddly. She’s gained new ones, a pattern of four skinny lines on her right cheek, like she’d been scratched by some huge cat. The dark skin of her exposed forearms is covered in scars as well, too many for him to really pay attention to. “Quaint is what we’re known for, yee-up,” she drawls. 

Shawn resolves to try to feel less irritated about the whole thing - now that he’s actually in front of Cobb she’s all smiles, perfectly happy to see him, and it’s not her fault that geography works the way it does, creating distance between places. All artists are eccentric, after all, and she’s not as bad as the man who told him snitches get stitches and then snorted coke off a table in front of him. Cobb is probably just a homebody and had had enough of human interaction that time at the Whitney. He needs to be much more elated about finally capturing the interview he’s spent his career striving for.

Well. No. He’ll be elated once he sees it in print. He can settle for just plain happiness right now though. 

“Mind if we go see your workshop?” Shawn asks. “Then I’ll get started on the questions, I’d just love to see what you’re working on currently.”

“Right this way!” Cobb replies, swiveling on her heels and plowing off towards an area behind the main building. Shawn wouldn’t consider himself to be a short man, but Cobb towers a good five inches over him, and she’s fast, even with a cane. He has to scramble to catch up with her. He tries to write into his notebook as he follows her - the air smells like the color green, if colors had smells, rich and clean, and then something about the way Cobb walks - but that’s quickly overridden when he steps square into a puddle of mud. He grimaces, tries to shake the grime off because he’s wearing nice shoes, and almost slips and faceplants for his efforts. 

“Yeah, watch your step,” Cobb twangs at him without turning around. “The weather changes so fast up here, we had a little shower right before you pulled up. I’d hate for you to wreck such a sharp lookin’ outfit!” She turns so that she’s walking backwards towards some outbuilding, which must be her workshop, and smiles at him. “You dress this nice for all the ladies you interview, or just me?”

Shawn feels his face spasm, and then tries very hard to get his expression under control. He would not describe Cobb as his type, even if she were not twice his age.

Cobb, who definitely saw his face, no matter how swiftly he tamped down the emotional response, laughs. “I’m jokin’,” she says. “I’m too old for you.”

Shawn fakes a laugh and tries to gingerly pick his way through a mud patch, mentally willing the workshop to not be so far away. Up close it looks somewhat close to part of a miniature version of the Lodge, much like the center part of the main hotel but without the side wings, which he assumes are for the guests. It’s a tall, almost dome shaped building made of logs and glass, all shades of amber brown. A chimney is exhaling smoke into the air, which is strange, seeing as it’s a warm spring day, nearly summer, but Cobb may have a kiln going. He knows she’s done ceramic works before. The bright sunshine bounces off the windows, and the soft evergreens surrounding it, framing it like an oil painting. Shawn stops and takes a few photos, grateful for the quality of the iPhone XS Max camera, since Cobb’s agent or whomever went and vetoed an actual photographer. Not like it’s an art magazine or anything. If he comes back with a photo even slightly below par - which they all will be, as he is not a photographer and is using an iPhone - he’ll be shunned and mocked by his coworkers for the rest of time. 

“C’mon,” Cobb says, smiling at him. “Should I, ah, go stand in front of the workshop -,”

“No, no,” Shawn interrupts. “This is fine.” He crouches, tries a few different angles, cringing at the mud he feels starting to cake his shoes. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Cobb wave at somebody behind him. He turns just in time to see a proper looking woman giving Cobb a cheery thumbs up before heading in the back door of the hotel, long skirt swishing about her ankles.

“Alright, that should be enough,” he says, “Might I see the inside?”

“That’s what you came for, right?” she says, and opens the door. “Wipe your feet, please.”

The sheer heat of the interior almost knocks Shawn off his feet before he even steps through the threshold. It’s so hot he briefly touches his eyebrows to see if they’ve been singed. Cobb shuts the door behind them, sealing them in. It doesn't take him long to figure out what’s making studio so hot - Cobb has three space heaters going full blast and a wood stove burning, and the heat sticks to his skin like he’s jumped in a lake fully dressed. He immediately shucks off his blazer, rolls up the sleeves of his floral button-down, giving up on his outfit. He wonders if this is what his brisket feels like when he’s cooking it.

Cobb points out a coat rack on the wall - a glossy knotted wood plank with pieces of deer antler sticking out - and he obediently hangs it there. He asks if he can record her, and sets up his equipment.

“So what have you been working on as of late?” Shawn asks. “I heard through the grapevine that you have an exhibit opening in the Brooklyn Museum in the fall.” He looks around the studio and finds, with no small measure of disappointment, that she has no art immediately on display. The floorboards are a gorgeous pine wood, gleaming under the sunlight, and the exposed walls host a variety of tools, meticulously organized. The current centerpiece of this room is a large object covered with a stained white sheet.

Cobb has just finished wrestling her hair back into a ponytail when she responds. “I do indeed. I’ve been playing around with Greco-Roman type statues,” she says, and pulls off the sheet to reveal a life sized, very naked, very anatomically correct man. Shawn is no stranger to nudity, he’s an art journalist after all, but he prefers the female nude figure to the male. It’s just more aesthetically pleasing, in his professional opinion. He’s gone to a few showings in smaller galleries centered around male nudity, mostly to support some of his gay friends. Shawn’s not gay himself, of course, but he knows it’s important to show tolerance. 

Cobb pats the statues hairy left buttcheek. The level of detail is impressive, nearly photographic in nature with how she’s managed to display the models corded muscle in his thighs and the softness in his stomach, as well as all the hair. The statue is standing with its bare feet firmly planted on a wedge of wood, its arms are held loose by its sides, head tilted down, a frozen half smile on its face. Unfortunately, its height and the angle of the head make it so it’s staring directly at Shawn, which he tries to subtly move away from. 

“D’ya want any progress shots?” Cobb asks, and Shawn realizes while he’s been taking in the statue she’s picked up some tiny electric tool and is finagling with a speaker in the corner. “It ain’t quite done yet. And if so, I gotta have some tunes on while I work, hope ya don’t mind.”

“Oh, of course,” Shawn says, trying to see where on this seemingly completed statue she could need to work on, as it looks like it just needs to be polished. He’s sweating through his shirt already, feeling the slick, uncomfortable crawl of moisture down his back. Cobb looks like she’s never sweated in her life, her hair moving slightly as if she’s standing in a breeze, somehow. There is certainly zero air movement in this room. “What sort of music do you listen to?” he asks, pen poised over his notebook.

“Well, I used to really love ambient industrial glitch music and dronedoom,” she says. Shawn blinks, having expected something like folk or bluegrass , and she continues. “But then my niece turned me on to this lovely young man on Soundcloud, and I don’t know how I survived without him.” 

Cobb presses play on her speaker, which unleashes a noise . It’s loud, just barely under what he’d call ear piercing. Although it’s not quite rattling his back teeth, what’s coming out of the speakers wired into almost every corner of the building would be terrible at any volume. It sounds like a trash compactor having sex with a garbage disposal, overlaid with the screams of someone on fire, in hell, who’s also trying to gargle rubbing alcohol.

“Do you… always listen to it this loud?” Shawn asks.

“Oh yes,” Cobb replies, delicately sculpting a vein in an area that Shawn looks quickly away from. “It has to be this loud, ‘else ya miss some of the important undertones that give the music its focus.”

His voice recorder will not work with the amount of background noise that is currently happening, so Shawn handwrites her absolute nonanswers to his questions. 

“Where did you grow up?” he asks. 

“Oh, around,” she replies. 

“What was your childhood like?” he asks. 

“Well, I was a child for all of it,” she replies. 

Shawn grits his teeth. Usually one of the basic questions opens up something that he can dig into, uncover a thread he can tug on. “When did you start doing art?” 

“I had the best hand turkey in my kindergarten class,” she says absently. She picks up a piece of sandpaper and starts smoothing down an area that makes him wince and stare down at his notepad.

“Oh, so this was a childhood dream of yours?” he asks. “Being an artist?”

“When I was four I wanted to be a unicorn when I grew up,” she replies. The soft rasp of grit on wood is lost to the discordant electronic screeching blaring from the speakers, underlaid with the occasional demonic scream and nonstop heavy breathing. “And when I was six, I wanted to be a scientist. Nobody told me ya gotta be able to do multiplication to do that. Quick, what’s 7 times 8?”

“56,” Shawn says automatically.

“See, I woulda said 78,” she says, and laughs.

“What would you say to your younger self if -,”

“Stop crushin’ on straight girls,” she says, interrupting, and picks up a handaxe. Shawn looks away again.

“I figure this gives it a lot more authenticity,” she says as some wood that Shawn makes an effort not to lay eyes upon clatters to the floor, “‘Cause a lot of those statues like this got some pieces parts gone and broken off, but the sculptor still made ‘em.”

“Yes,” Shawn replies. She crosses the room back over to her iPod setup, taps on the screen a few times. She is still clutching the axe.

“And this is my favorite song,” she tells him, earnest, as a paper shredder grinding itself to death begins blaring from the speakers, “By my favorite white soundcloud rapper. I always feel so inspired when I listen to it, I can’t believe he’s not more famous.”

The vocals kick in, sounding like someone trying to recite the declaration of independence whilst being dragged over a bed of hot coals. Shawn has gone out of his way during his life not to listen to rap music - he prefers classics like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin (not Ella Fitzgerald, however, women just don’t have the vocal or emotional range to really reach him) and sometimes he’ll make a foray into progressive rock - but even he can tell that calling this rap would not be accurate even in the most generous sense of the word. The singer, if he could even be called that, is rather blasé about things like rhythm, rhyme, and enunciation. 

“I think I’ve seen enough for my article,” Shawn tells her as politely as he can manage with sweat dripping off the end of his nose and his eye beginning to twitch rapidly. “Do you mind if we look at the rest of the property?”

“Oh, not at all!” Cobb exclaims. “But are you sure you don’t wanna give this a listen first? It’s very good.”

“I’m positive,” Shawn says, faint, as the rapper screams like the world is ending. He thinks there might be some words in the midst of it, but one can never be too certain. 

She shuts off the music and (thankfully) puts down the axe as Shawn takes a few photos of the sculpture now that it lacks a certain part, struggling to grip the smooth glass of his phone with his sweaty palms. He’d thought of getting a case, given that it was nearly $1,500, but frankly, what’s the point of having an iPhone if you’re just going to cover it up with some clunky piece of rubber and plastic? 

The air outside of the studio is muggy and hot, but compared to the roasting heat of the studio it’s practically a walk in freezer. Shawn pauses outside the door, trying not to pant, swipes his hands across his sweating face. He’s certain that his hair - which he meticulously styles every morning, and gets cut and highlighted every two weeks to maintain - has not survived its encounter with an unexpected sauna. He can feel it flopping across his forehead, wilting like a flower. 

Conversely, Cobb looks like she doesn’t so much as possess sweat glands. She grins at him, as poised as one can be in mud boots and worn out clothes he’s certain are from Walmart. Keep it together, he tells himself sternly. He turns his face into the wind that briefly kicks his way before vanishing. He exhales, takes a second to ground himself.

“Just had an idea,” he says, “Do you mind if I take some photos of you outside your studio? It’s a neat little building, and people always love to see where an artist does their creating.”

Cobb chuckles and ducks her head for a split second, then pulls some gum out of her back pocket, pops a stick in her mouth. She doesn’t offer him a piece.

“You sure?” she says. “‘Cause when -,” she cuts herself off with a sigh. “Never mind,” she tells him. “Where do you want me?”

“Because when what?” Shawn asks. 

“Oh, nothin’,” she tells him, smiling. “Just was thinkin’ out loud. Where should I stand?”

Shawn knows what oh nothing means, given that the last time he’d been hit with it, it was from his most recent ex girlfriend, just moments before their last, relationship ending fight. Cobb, however, is smiling, perfectly happy, and lacks the stormcloud of emotions that Cassandra had exuded moments before going I just think it’s funny how -

He takes a few photos of Cobb posed, grinning, in front of her workshop. Well, he’d said after she had finished her rant - he can’t recall what it was about, in all fairness to himself, it was quite a long monologue, he’d gotten distracted a few sentences in after something about respecting boundaries and listening to her and a few invectives - Cassie, sweetheart, why didn’t you -

Christ, don’t call me that right now, what’s wrong with you, she’d said, and then less than ten minutes later she had left his apartment in a huff, and he found himself blocked on every piece of social media up to and including her LinkedIn page, ending their four month relationship with a bang. He hadn’t even known you could block someone on LinkedIn. He’s still not quite sure what he’d done wrong.

Regardless, Cobb doesn’t seem the type to bottle things up. It’s probably fine. 

Cobb leads him back to the front entrance, her boots making the slog through the mud look effortless. If anything, it seems wetter out here than before, although he hadn’t seen it start to rain. Everywhere else but the meandering path she’s taking him on seems dry, the blades of grass shining brightly in the sun, the occasional exposed patches of earth light brown. There’s a rather sizable flock of chickens and some odd, roughly basketball shaped birds scratching around, kicking up clouds of dust. Cobb hums the song that she had started listening to inside.

“Are you sure there isn’t, perhaps, a dryer path?” Shawn asks. A few of the spherical birds look over at him as he does so. Their faces are featherless and ghostly blue-white, with an odd boney crest poking out of the top and coarse hairs (?!) sprouting down the back of their necks. Their beaks and the weird growths around them are bright red. They look like dinosaurs. One of them unleashes a sound that makes Shawn jump.

“Nope!” Cobb says, popping the p. “Those are, uh,” she gestures at the world at large, “Secret bogs. You’ll lose your shoes in ‘em.”

Shawn would argue that fact, given that the chickens are kicking up a not insignificant amount of very dry dirt, but the terrifying dinosaur birds are starting to inch closer, as well as a gigantic red rooster with spurs that look to be the length of his thumb, and he’s not looking to get gored to death today.

A young woman with short, bright red hair is picking her way through the garden behind the hotel, holding a basket of something he’s too far away to tell the contents of. Her boots look dry. She waves enthusiastically at Cobb, her dark skin gleaming in the golden hour light.

“Hi Mama!” she shouts. “Who’s the dude?”

“Oh, just some reporter!” Cobb yells, having stopped walking in the middle of a deep puddle to wave back. Shawn pointedly does not bristle about being called just some reporter. 

“Cool!” the woman replies. “Is he staying for my magic show?”

“Of course!” Cobb says. Water is seeping into Shawn’s Italian leather shoes, cold, slimy. He coughs, politely, but Cobb doesn’t start walking again. He tries to back onto drier ground, but there’s none to be found.

“Cool!” the woman says again. “Should I put the women away?”

“Women?” Shawn asks.

Cobb ignores him. “Naw, they’ll be fine for a bit longer. Just before dinner, maybe? Feed ‘em their slop then too.”

“It’s not slop, Mama!” the young woman yells. Shawn’s feet are thoroughly soaked. “Just because they work for us doesn’t mean you get to demean them!”

“What women?” he asks, which is a perfectly reasonable question that gets ignored yet again.

“Sure it is,” Cobb says. “Watch this.” She turns and sticks two fingers in her mouth and whistles directly into Shawn’s ear. “Hey girlies!” she shouts, “Want some slop?”

The sound that follows when his ears stop ringing is one that Shawn has only heard the time he dropped an entire plate of fries outside of the MET, only louder, bigger. He turns to see the whole hoard of birds coming towards them, some sprinting, some soaring through the air like death itself. Shawn goes to run, but Cobb slings an arm around both his shoulders and marches him forward, into the oncoming storm. 

“These are my girls,” she says, proudly, as the flock descends.

They skid to a halt around their feet, the ground damp but not a puddle. Cobb reaches the hand not pressing him into her side into her pocket and pulls out a handful of seeds, scattering them at their feet. Shawn valiantly does not hyperventilate, even as one of the chickens swipes its beak against the ground as a chef does whilst sharpening a knife.

“Hi ladies!” Cobb coos, then looks up at the young woman and says, “See? Even they know it’s slop!”

The woman flips her off. Cobb flips her off right back, and the woman whisks off indoors, away from the pack of birds pecking the ground like it’s said something about their mothers. Shawn would like to follow her, but Cobb drags him down into a crouch and dumps some seeds into his hand.

“What?” he asks.

“You should feed them,” she says. She holds out a hand, gently cupped, and a gang of them peck at the feed in it like jackhammers.

Shawn would not like to do that.

“Are you scared of chickens?” Cobb asks.

“No,” he replies, firm, because natural, healthy apprehension is not the same thing as fear. One of the chickens hones in on the food in his clenched fist, wobbling its head side to side to eye it over. Shawn pulls his hand away and attempts to discreetly shove its contents into his pocket. He’s not quite sure what to do with it all, but there’s probably a trashcan somewhere he can dispose of it in. He doesn’t want to feed the beasts and have them come closer to him.

“They’re all real friendly,” Cobb says, smiling, enthusiastic. “Some of ‘em will sit on my shoulder. Like parrots. Watch.”

She holds her scarred forearm level to the ground, and one of the smaller ones - chicken, not strange spherical velociraptor, this one with pearly grey-blue feathers and fluffy feet - eyes it with interest, wiggling its tail feathers and bunching itself low to the ground before leaping up, landing with a wobbly sort of malicious grace. Its talons dig into her skin.

“Was that your daughter?” Shawn asks. The chicken makes its way up her arm towards her shoulder to perch there like a parrot, staring at him with outright suspicion. He stares right back.

“No,” Cobb replies. She scratches the chicken under the beak and does not elaborate.

“Your niece?” he tries.

“That’s the Lady Flame,” Cobb says absently, still petting the chicken, which shuts its brown eyes and snuggles its face close to hers. “And this is Beppi. She’s my baby.”

Shawn can feel his eye beginning to twitch again.

After a few more minutes of chicken stroking, Cobb puts the bird down with a little pat on the back. The chicken makes a small beep in response, and then Cobb is upright and walking so fast that Shawn has to slip and scramble in the mud after her.

Finally they make it onto the gravel pathway leading the final few short feet up the steps to the front entrance, every step that Shawn takes squelching loudly, uncomfortably. Cobb is chatting animatedly about some new addition she’s been thinking about having built for sheep? Goats? Something for yarn, she’d said. He’s not paying as much attention as he perhaps should be. His last interaction with any barnyard animal - beyond nearly being accosted by chickens - was in sixth grade, where his whole class took a field trip to a farm in upstate New York. His mother had combed his wet hair back as he complained that morning, humming thoughtfully every now and then.

“Shawn, darling,” she’d said once he finished speaking, brushing nonexistent dust off of his shoulder. “You need to see how those less fortunate than you live at some point. It’ll be good to get out in the fresh air.” She patted him on the cheek. “Chin up, buttercup. Go have fun.”

Shawn had gotten on the bus with all his classmates, inhaled the fresh air (that had smelled like sewage), saw how the less fortunate lived, and had gone into the petting area at the end of the trip and was immediately headbutted by a goat, landing on his ass in a pile of animal shit.

They went years without talking about it, until one of their New Years Eve parties. Shawn was in his early twenties, a little bit tipsy on champagne, his mother wine drunk, edging into sloppy. He doesn’t know why he thought of it - they’d been discussing childhoods, but it was a few conversational threads back by then.

“Mom,” he said, “Remember the farm I went to? Field trip, sixth grade?”

He’d explained it all rather concisely - as a child with a trust fund, he had no need to see how a farm worked, as he’d never be on one in his life due to aforementioned trust fund, and he could have gotten seriously injured, what if that goat had ruptured his spleen? Really, it just wasn’t necessary he was put through such a traumatic experience at such an impressionable age.

His mother had looked at him like he’d just stripped naked, leapt up onto the table, and declared that he was going to start working as a cashier at Walmart before lighting his hair on fire.

“Shawn, sweetie,” she said, incredulous, giggling slightly, “Are you still on about that? It was forever ago!” 

And then she laughed until she spilled a little bit of wine on her dress and had to go change.

“This is Amnesty Lodge!” Cobb says, throwing the front door open. 

The inside is busy - bustling, even - full of mismatched overstuffed furniture in various shades of browns, greens, and plaids, the same shining pine floorboards as Cobb’s workshop, wooden walls. Rustic chic, full of homey alpine charm, with an extremely inviting atmosphere, if one was so inclined towards that aesthetic, which Shawn is not. It’s also full of people - a woman on the piano, her hair held back with a hairpin, a young man laboriously doing something with the wheels on his skateboard, a few folks are collapsed onto various chairs with their noses in books, and the red haired woman he saw outside is currently enthusiastically trying to reach another girls tonsils with her tongue. 

Shawn looks away as soon as he spots them. Sure, he’s tolerant of gays, but he’s not big on PDA, and he doesn’t understand why people feel the need to shove their love lives into others faces.

“We get all sorts of folks here,” Cobb is telling him, “But we all always eat like a big family.”

“Of course,” Shawn says. It smells intensely of cooking meat. An extremely tall man creeps out of the kitchen, tossing a blue and white checked dish towel over his muscular shoulder. He scans the lobby like a weathered safari guide on a jeep in the savanna - one hand shading his eyes, squinting slightly, upper lip faintly curled, leaning forward with a hand on his hip - and spots them, immediately breaking into a huge grin. He walks over to them, crossing the room in a few long strides, arms open, and enfolds Cobb into the kind of hug that seems more appropriate for a veteran returning from war, rather than from a quick jaunt outside. 

Shawn recognizes him, suddenly, horribly, as the same man as the statue outside.

“Mama! You didn’t tell me you were bringing a visitor!” the man admonishes, pulling back and cradling her face with his massive, meat shovel hands. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, just some reporter from New York,” she says, waving a hand dismissively, peeling his hands off and kissing him on both palms. Shawn exhales sharply. “Wanted to see some of my work, ask some questions. He’s stayin’ for dinner.”

Shawn doesn’t remember being asked to stay for dinner, and really, he’d like to go back to Snowshoe and change his clothes. Everything is wet, either from his own sweat or from the puddles he’s been forced to walk through, and it’s uncomfortable . However, his current list of Madeline Cobb Facts and Answers is… in a sorry state. Maybe she’ll give him more in an environment with people around her.

“Of course he is!” the man replies, and turns, sticking out his hand to give Shawn another bone grinding handshake. His palm is damp. Shawn is trying very hard to not remember what his genitalia looks like and as such is physically incapable of looking at him. “The Lady Flame is performing! Who could miss that! Don’t worry, there’s more than enough flat tail fillets to go around.”

“Flat tailed fillets?” Shawn asks.

“Gourmet cuisine,” Cobb tells him. Shawn resolves to lock himself in the bathroom and google it before he remembers that there’s no signal out here and mentally kicks himself. “C’mon, lets go sit in my office.” 

She once again manhandles Shawn down a hallway, passing by several large framed drawings that he tries to stop and look at and is subsequently prevented from doing so by her crushing grip on his shoulder. Cobb’s office is medium sized and horribly messy - he’s pretty sure there’s moldy mugs reproducing under one of the chairs, given how many of them there are. Papers are scattered across every available surface and the filing cabinet hangs open, forgotten in the corner, a few files still left in it. Shawn sets up his recorder as he pulls up a chair on the other side of her desk, then takes a second visual pass: she has a mallet and a hunting knife on her desk, which looks as though she probably made it herself, a coat rack with a leather duster on it, and there’s a massive gun safe next to the filing cabinet. She sits in the spinning chair behind the desk, knees cracking as she does so. Behind her, on the wall she has her degree framed, as well as a drawing.

The drawing is large, but simple, black and white with smooth, neat, elegant lines, and no background. It’s of a man being shot through with several arrows, his face twisted up in unbelievable agony. His face, which looks alarmingly similar to Shawn’s own. The only real difference, he would say, is the nose - the man’s is small and feminine, almost a button nose.

Cobb glances behind her to see what he’s looking at, then smiles warmly at him. “Ah, y’like that?” she asks.

“It’s - interesting,” he manages. He and the man have the same body type. “Did you -?”

“Oh, naw,” she says, laughing. “Dani did that one, she’s a real artist.” Shawn squints at the piece, and there’s a signature in the corner, as well as a date - it was drawn all the way back in 2017, apparently. “She’s still goin’ through her macabre phase, I guess. I think all women go through it. I had one back in college.”

Shawn knows this, because the pieces are photographed and on her website, although personally he thinks it was less macabre phase and more violent streak. However, this is the first thing she’s told him of her own volition that he didn’t have to pry out of her mouth with a crowbar, so he’s damn well going to run with it. 

“Why do you think that is?” he asks.

Cobb hums thoughtfully, moving her chair back and forth slightly with one foot and chewing on the inside of her cheek. “Well,” she says. “I can’t claim to know anybody’s life but my own, y’see, but for me I was… a little fed up.”

She waits for him to finish jotting down the details of the room - despite the dirty dishware it smells nice in here, Pine-Sol with something bakery-sweet and warm, and there’s framed photos of her posed with a harp seal, so she’s been to the Arctic at some point, as well as pictures of her and several other people, something akin family photos, only she’s definitely not related to any of the people in them. 

“With what?” he prompts. 

“People who wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she says, and something shifts, some mounting tension. He can’t describe what the change is, but suddenly her eye contact feels - sharp. Predatory. It’s hard to keep holding it with her. “I was a bit of a firebrand back then, but I was nineteen and broke as all get out, so I channeled all that energy into art. That and makin’ sure pushy men learned some valuable lessons on when they should back off. Followed a few folks around, did some looming, made sure that ain’t nobody came back to where they weren’t wanted. Got physical quite a few times, but, well.” She taps her fingers on the desktop in a slow, war-like drumbeat. “I know how to throw a punch.”

“I - I see,” Shawn replies. He looks away first.

“You’re stayin’ for dinner, right?” Cobb chirps. She’s smiling suddenly, looking for all intents and purposes delighted by his general existence. Shawn wonders if it’s possible to get emotional whiplash.  “I know I already kinda said you were, but that’s fine, right? Y’won’t get the full Lodge experience if you skip out on it!”

Shawn, whose custom Italian leather shoes are ruined, and who has recently had the uniquely unpleasant sensation of sweat sliding down the backs of his knees, which has now dried tacky against his skin, feels like he has received enough of an experience for the rest of his life. He would very much like to leave.

“Mama!” someone shouts down the hallway. “Come eat!”

It’s taken a bit, but Mama thinks Shawn’s finally catching on. Truth be told, she was beginning to get nervous he wouldn’t, which was making her worry both about his cognitive abilities and if they’d have to escalate matters. He’s truly not the sharpest tool in the shed, as it were, but rich white men so rarely are. She’s keeping up a gentle stream of chatter about how rarely Barclay ever burns anything as she leads him down the hallway, slowly this time so he can take everything in. He almost stops at her pen and ink reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes, where someone who could be her, if she had a buzzcut and one were to squint, cuts off his - if he had a handlebar mustache and dark hair - head. Barclay - if Barclay was less… everything - is helping her hold him down. She’s quite proud of that one.

The hall might have been too much, she thinks as he peers warily at each new drawing depicting the gruesome demise of someone who looks a great deal like him. They exit it, though, and back into the lobby, where all of her residents - both current and former - all immediately cease talking and turn to look at him in perfect sync. Fuck is she proud of them. She could just about tear up. She watches as Shawn’s resolve crumbles.

“You know,” Shawn says, his slick, professional I-know-more-than-you tone gone, “I think I might’ve left something in - in my car. I’ll just go get that real quick.”

And that’s a wrap, she thinks, privately a little disappointed that he isn’t going to stick around for the Lady Flame’s first ever terrible show. She hoped his pride would have held out a bit longer.

“Ah, well, hurry on back,” she drawls, then hauls him into a hug, clapping him on the back with the most force she can manage, which knocks the wind out of him. She can feel the impact reverberating in his ribcage. She uses his following confusion to slip both his phone and his little notebook out of his pockets and into her own. “We got your beaver all plated up for you!”

She releases him, and he doesn’t quite run, but he is going fast enough not to slow down in time when Stern steps in through the front door, and they collide. She plops his phone in the nearest glass of water and swirls it around a bit, feeling a little bad - but it’s not like he can’t afford another. She just doesn’t want to have his photos of her appearing anywhere, and out in the radio quiet zone there’s no I-whatever backups. Aubrey had explained it to her, but honestly, she’s fine not understanding it. She hears Stern emphasize Agent Stern, FBI, and pulls the phone out of the glass and wipes it dry. 

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Weasely,” Stern says, and Mama bites her lip hard to keep from laughing. She tries to turn the phone on. 

“It’s Wesley,” Shawn snaps out, hysterical, and she just barely manages to turn her snort into a sneeze. The phone stays dark. 

She ghosts out after him, leans on the front porch as he quickly unlocks his car and goes to step in.

“Shawn,” she calls, and he freezes, head snapping up to look at her, caught. She spins his phone between her fingers, holding it up for him to see. “Y’dropped somethin’. Wouldn’t wanna leave without it.”

He gives her a tight smile, almost a grimace, his thin lips going white. “Of course,” he says, and steps on her fucking flowerbed to go up and grab it rather than taking three steps to the right and going up the stairs like a sentient fucking being and not an animal. She holds it out, but doesn’t let go when he puts his hand on it. 

“Shawn,” she says again, “Might I give you some advice?”

She waits for him to nod, or agree in some way, but he doesn’t, both feet on her favorite purple columbine. She sighs and continues anyways. “Next time somebody tells you no, just take that as an answer, yeah? Sometimes they’re nice, sure, or they’re tired, and you can wear ‘em down.” She grins. Not her real one, but a sharks smile, the one that makes Thacker tell her she looks like a fuckin’ psychopath, Maddie, the one that makes the kids drop whatever nonsense they’re trying to get up to and find something better to do with their time, the one that makes Barclay flush dark and look away with a small cough and a smile tucked into his cheek. It makes Shawn go whiter, something she wasn’t sure was possible with his milk-pale skin. “But sometimes they’re me.”

She pats the back of his hand with her free one, then lets go of the phone.

Mama watches him drive away, leaning down with her elbows on the porch railing. She hears the screen door creak open and shudder closed, then Barclay’s behind her, his body warm against her back as his hands slide over her hips, his chin resting on her shoulder.

“Well?” he asks, nosing behind her ear. “Worth destroying my lawn over?”

Mama smiles, real this time. “Oh yes,” she says. “Well worth it.” 

She hears the window open behind them both, and they turn to see Stern, ducked down to look out at them through the screen and holding a plate piled with meat and vegetables. 

“You know?” he says, mouth full and gesturing with his fork. “Beaver is actually really good! I wasn’t expecting that!”