By Victor D. Infante
I can’t remember the last time I cried in front of anybody. Not since I was a little kid, at the very least. And even then, I don’t think it happened often. Maybe in front of mom, I don’t know. Certainly not in front of the kids at school.
But the last time I cried was after Papa’s funeral, a little more than five years ago. He’d been struggling with cancer on and off for years – chemotherapy, the whole kit and caboodle. Every trick modern medicine had to offer him. Note the diction.
One night, as it all dwindled down toward the end, I tried to broach the subject with him, to suggest that there was maybe something I could do to help him, or at least ease his pain. Because cancer? Pretty sure that’s out of my league.
I barely got a sentence out when he shut me down with the coldest look I’d ever seen, colder than any wicked witch this side of Margaret Hamilton. He said nothing. I said nothing. And then he reached out his hand and touched my cheek.
“Everything comes to an end, baby girl,” he said. “I’ve come this far down the road on my own terms, and I’m not changing now. It’s been a good run.”
And, OK. If I were going to cry in front of anyone, that would have totally been the moment. But I didn’t. I choked it back and rested my hand on his, then laid my head on his chest and let him hold me for a while.
“Everything in the attic is yours,” he said dozily, as he began to fall asleep. “Everything. I can’t keep it from you anymore. You do what you think is right. I can’t stop you”
He smiled a little, fighting sleep a few more moments.
“I miss your grandmother,” he said. “Missed her even before she died.”
I told him to try to get some rest. That it would all be OK.
He smiled again.
“I left you my Bible, too,” he said. Take good care of it.
Then he finally drifted off to sleep.
I don’t really remember what happened next. Electronic gizmos went haywire, nurses and doctors came rushing into the room. Someone – a nurse, I think – grabbed my arm gently and guided me outside. She was talking in a parents-in-a-“Peanuts”-cartoon voice. I couldn’t understand a word she said.
The next few days were … busy. The usual. Packing, paperwork, looking after mom. Mom simply nodded affably when I told her Papa said I could have the stuff in the attic, and that he wanted me to have his Bible. She was a little shell-shocked, so maybe it didn’t really sink in. Or, conversely, maybe denial’s really not just a river in Egypt. I got the stuff back to my condo as quickly as I could, so as to avoid relatives poking through it. I put the Bible on the coffee table, next to last month’s Vogue. I noted that its cover pretty much matched my black leather couch, which amused me. Then I promptly forgot about it. The days were moving quickly.
The funeral was another matter altogether. The funeral slowed time down to a crawl from the moment I walked through the church doors.
The usual pre-funeral chatter ceased as soon as I entered, replaced with low whispering and averted gazes. My mother avoided making eye contact when I sat down next to her, instead grasped my hand. My father furrowed his brow, as though he were trying to understand something just outside his understanding. Maybe he was. It was a tiresome affair, all told. I simmered with rage as their gazes bored into the back of my head. For a moment, I thought the heat of their stares would set my hair on fire. For a moment, I thought I’d do the same to them, sans metaphor. But mom would have never forgiven me.
A little piece of Sondheim lilted through my brain.
“I’m the witch … you’re the world.”
The priest stepped to the pulpit, paused and coughed when he saw me in the pews. It took him a moment to regain his footing. More eyes turned toward me, before easing soon into the steady rhythm of prayers, hymns and some homily about the road to Damascus, which couldn’t have been at all appropriate. At least he wasn’t suffering anyone to live, at least out loud. That might have gotten confrontational. I endured it all, face a statue, and left as soon as it was over, my only goodbye a nod to my father and a peck on my mother’s cheek.
I went home, poured myself a glass of wine, put some Iggy Pop on the stereo and plopped myself on the couch, staring at Papa’s book. I ran my fingers over the pages, not really reading, until finally I could allow myself to cry. It lasted a couple hours. I swore to never do it again.
“Honey gotta help me, please” crooned Iggy at full blast. “Somebody gotta save my soul? Baby detonate for me…”
Little miss oh-so-totally Raven has no such crying compunctions, and considering a serious witch-that-is-also-a-rhymes-with-witch has just trashed her living room, and poured salt on two rather traumatic recent wounds, I gotta say, I don’t really blame her. Part of me even wants to do something, oh, I don’t know, human, but I can’t quite figure out what. Besides, it’s not a good time, because that knot in my stomach is getting worse and worse.
There are reasons why witches are so territorial, why we violently shun our own kind for anything more than short stints. We’re each indelibly tied to a place – a city, a territory. That place is the source of our powers, and when another witch spends too long within it, we begin to feel it. When Sara was just a local college student, it was no big deal. But now she’s a witch, and she belongs to somewhere else. Which she won’t properly be tied to until she goes back. In the meantime, she’s sucking energy from me, while her body tries to adjust to her new status quo. Right now, it’s like I’m seriously low blood-sugaring. It’s going to get worse.
Sara’s head is in her hands. I start to say something, and then stop when I see that, instead of tears, her eyes are now dripping blood.
“… you big disgrace … kicking your can all over the place.”
Philomena’s talking to me again. The ghost of Freddie Mercy is talking to me, too. And the blood? That’s a statement.
“Sara,” I say. “We need to leave here. Now.”
Sara’s head jerks backward, Linda Blair style, and her body is shaking in spasm. She’s trying to scream, and it’s just coming out as shrieking, garbled nonsense. It’s every inch of willpower not to startle when the door slams shut behind me, and now blood is running down the walls. Everything is shaking – a flower pot shatters, the TV set explodes.
“Singing we will, we will rock you …”
“Sara,” I say, as calmly as I can muster. “I need you to cast out whatever’s …”
No doing. Sara’s mouth is foaming, and she’s thrashing herself against the couch. I look for a weapon.
“The bag,” whispers Philomena, and before I even register that I’ve acted, Sara’s velvet pouch flies into my hand.
“You will leave,” says a perfect Hammer Horror Films voice echoing from Sara’s pretty college co-ed mouth. “You will leave this one to my mercies. She is mine.”
“Yeah,” I say, reaching my fingers into the bag to divine its contents by touch. “That’s the thing. Her grandma was kind-of a friend, so I think I’ve got a debt here, and anyway, you take her territory, what’s to say you won’t take mine, too?”
The voice laughs with a screech that makes me strain to keep the sick down in my throat. Ick. I pull some chalk from the bag, and my fingers brush something that could be … sage? Wormwood? There’s a couple things in there.
“OK,” I say to myself. “Totally faking this now.”
“I do not wish to face you today, Whitney Bierce,” says the voice. “I have greater battles ahead, greater territories to conquer. Leave, and I shall leave you be for now.”
“Right,” I say, pulling the thin knife from my own bag and cutting my palm. “Here’s what I think. I think Miss Raven’s putting up too much of a struggle for you to both control her and fight me, so you’re pretty much down to cheap CGI. Am I warm?”
I clasp the chalk in my hand until the blood has soaked in, and then I release it, sending it flying from my hand in an arc around the living room, then downward in lines, forming a pentagram.
The voice is screeching now, wailing uncontrollably. Sara’s eyes are rolling backward, and her tongue is lolling outside her mouth, which can’t be good.
“We will, we will rock you …”
There’s a sharp stab of pain that’s arcing up my arm, but I put it out of my head as I stare down at the possessed young woman.
“Last chance,” I say, but the wailing just continues as whatever it is that’s holding her starts consuming her … errr, life force, I guess? Soul? Damned if I know. Which is when it hits me that I’ve been discounted as a threat.
“Fine,” I say, as I grab a handful of the herbs in the pouch and toss them in Sara’s direction. “I cast you out, unclean spirit!” I shout. “In the name of whatever it was Max Von Sydow said in that movie! I cast you out!”
As the herbs hurtle toward the writhing girl, they burst into flame, startling the spirit. Distracting it. And as quickly as I can, I lurch forward, and try to replicate my first really good trick, clawing my hand into Sara’s chest, clutching at the ectoplasm within. The spirit’s howling, and Sara’s thrashing continues, her flailing arms bashing into me repeatedly.
“C’mon, girl,” I shout. “C’mon! Push! Push this damn thing out of you!”
The scream is a cacophony now, and out of the corner of my eyes I see that the living room is starting to burn from my little distraction. But Sara’s pushing. I can feel her. And Philomena’s anchoring me, lending me strength. Hell, maybe the ghost of Freddie Mercury is pitching in, too, because his voice is starting to wail from beneath my feet, loud enough to drown out the screaming.
One more good tug, and I pull a neon-blue blob of ectoplasm from Esme Kelley’s granddaughter, but I have nothing to bind it into. I wasn’t prepared for this fight, which means I’m going to have to pay for it, eventually. The amorphous light slips through my fingers, and begins quickly circling the room. Suddenly, I’m at the eye of a spirit-world hurricane.
“Little witch,” says the spirit. “Little witch. You have done an audacious thing here, Whitney Bierce. This one was mine by right, as her mother was. As her grandmother was.”
There’s a laugh echoing from everywhere now, a laugh that feels like someone’s running a straight-razor over my bones.
“Like your grandmother was,” says the spirit. “I didn’t need your petty little city, Whitney Bierce, not yet, but it will be mine. I will string your guts streetlight to streetlight.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I say, sounding braver than I feel. “You’ll grind my bones to bake your bread. You’re beaten. Scram.”
The light is gone then, with a howl that echoes across the city night, fading into the distance and replaced by the sound of oncoming sirens.
The fire’s spread. There’s not a lot I can do about it, right now. I’m too weak.
With what little strength I have, I pull the barely conscious Sara Johanson close and leave the building. We pass the firefighters unseen as they arrive. They won’t see us if I don’t want them to. I can still do that much.
Their questions will go unanswered.