The biggest mystery in my witching career is why I’m a witch and my mother isn’t. Usually, the line of inheritance is pretty clear cut. When grandma died, it should have passed to her. But she was just a baby when that happened. And as to why she didn’t just inherit it later, like I did? Well, I guess that was pretty much Papa’s doing. He knew his sister was a witch, and hated it. Consequently, he raised his niece to be pretty much the opposite of a witch.
Which isn’t to say he was a bad guardian. I mean, mom was loved, cared for, looked after, clothed, educated and anything a Social Services inspector could have possibly marked down on a clipboard. When she went to school, he helped her with her homework and went to PTA meetings. When she went to college, he helped pay her student loans. When she had problems, he’d listen patiently. When she got married, he picked up the bill.
Gotta say, as a father figure? He didn’t suck. Mom is totally the most normal, well-adjusted person I know. And, OK, churchgoer, which may explain the lack of witchiness. But still. I don’t know. She still seems like she might have been a better candidate along the way than I am.
But it is what it is. These things aren’t up to me, and as I open the creaky gate of the – I am so not making this up – white picket fence and observe the perfectly mowed law in front of the completely innocuous suburban home, I can’t help but wonder if maybe the universe sometimes really does know what it’s doing. Because no witch in their right mind grows day lilies in the front yard.
Of course, I’ve never met another witch who owns the every season of Rupaul’s Drag Race on DVD, so I guess it’s all relative.
Mom’s in the kitchen, and I can smell the roast beef cooking in the oven. And goodness gracious, that’s a good enough reason to stick around a little while. Even with a belly full of moo shu pork, I’m salivating.
“Whitney!” she says, when I knock on the kitchen door, as is my habit. She takes off her oven mitts and hugs me. “I wasn’t expecting you!”
She wrinkles her nose.
“Have you been cooking? There’s smoke in your hair.”
“It’s no big deal,” I say, deflecting. “Kind of an experiment gone awry. It’ll wash out.” I really, really hope it’ll wash out.
I pull up a chair and prepare to chat. My mom’s a hell of a cook, but she’s a world-class champion chatter.
“I’m so glad you stopped by,” she says, turning down the Beatles on her countertop CD player. “I was just talking with your cousin, Catherine – her wedding’s coming up. I know you probably can’t make it, but I’ll put your name on the present if you want – and anyway, she was asking if you were still in the antiques business, and if you’d be up for taking a look at some of the stuff in Aunt Carol’s attic. She’s getting a little out there, y’know. They’re thinking about putting her in a home. They’re much nicer than they used to be.”
I nod. I suppose I’ll have to get around to that one, eventually. Mom rattles on about relatives for a while, some of whom I’m quite certain she just made up on the spot to see if I’m paying attention, before finally winding down.
“So what brings the visit?” she asks, cheerily. Which is a fair question, as I don’t often just stop by.
“Actually,” I say, “I was hoping I could borrow a couple books from your library. Which? Totally the truth. I don’t lie to my mom. Not if I can help it. She always senses it when I’m lying, and it always just goes downhill from there. Like, bobsled at Olympic speeds downhill. Mom teaches fifth graders. She can smell a lie faster than she can burnt hair.
“Oh, sure,” she says. “You can take anything you want back there. Just be sure to keep them in good shape, and bring them back when you’re done.”
That one’s a little pointed. I have a sordid history of dog-earing books, and there’s still a matter of a “borrowed” Michael Chabon novel that’s unresolved between us. She never mentions it directly, but I know. One of these days I need to remember to bring it back.
“Yeah,” I say. “The latest Connie Willis novel uses some of the same characters as The Domesday Book, and I wanted to reread. Oh, and I was hoping I could borrow grandma’s old books.”
Mom stops at that, and her lips pull thin. Those books have always been a bone of contention. One neither of us wants to pull at too much, but a bone, nonetheless.
See, because while mom has less witch in her than Michael J. Fox has Elvis, she did manage to get herself worked into a rebellious streak as a teenager, and instead of smoking or cruising with boys, she snuck into the attic while Papa wasn’t home and snagged the books. Fortunately, nothing came of it – she can’t read a word of them. But she kept them anyway, and has a fierce – if weird – sentimental attachment to them.
“Why on Earth would you want to borrow those old things?” she asks, suspiciously. It’s moments like this that I wholeheartedly believe mom’s denial only runs so deep.
“You’re not going to try and sell them, are you?”
And I Cheshire Cat, because mom, bless her, has given me an opening.
“No, no, no,” I say genially. “I just want to go over some of the inscriptions. I know someone who can translate them.”
Of course, that someone is me, but that’s not exactly a lie. Mom’s not pinging, so I seem to be clear.
“OK, sure. Are you going to be sticking around for dinner? Your father should be home from the hospital in an hour or so.”
Dad’s a doctor. His hours are crazy. Mom and I are both kind of used to it.
“Can’t,” I say. “I’ve got company coming.”
Boy, do I ever. I kiss mom on the cheek and scamper to the back room, where mom keeps the books. Stacks of them, poorly arranged, in a complete deviation from mom’s normal unyielding sense of order. Everyone has someplace where they keep the crazy, and this is hers. And while I often enjoy picking past her Carlos Castanada and Shirley MacLaine to find the classic science fiction and occasional romance novels stuffed in the back, I really don’t have time.
I snap my fingers, and the Connie Willis book levitates from one of the upper shelves and into my hands. That out of the way, I turn my attention to the three books that I don’t have any trouble locating: the three leather-bound volumes that once belonged to Abigail Sparks, sitting on the very top of the bookcase, because they’re too big to go anywhere else.
I lay the books down on the table and feel my breath catch as I reach to open one. This happens every time. A current of electricity runs down my spine as I touch the cover. These old books practically radiate power and history. Maybe that’s why mom’s so attached to them – that sense that they’re something more than garbled nonsense symbols and gibberish.
Or maybe it’s that they’re really the only thing she has left of her mother. Maybe it’s the same thing.
“Oh, Abigail,” I say to myself. “Do you have any idea what a hole you left behind?”
“I think she does,” says a man’s voice, from behind me. I straighten up fast, and begin to conjure as I turn, prepared to defend myself and hoping that I really, really don’t have to do so here. The first thing that I realize as I turn is that I no longer hear any background noise – no mom puttering in the kitchen, no buzz of electric lights, no soothing tones of Paul McCartney. The second thing I realize is that I recognize the voice.
Papa stands in the doorway of the library, dressed in a black suit, steely gaze fixed on me, his arms folded as they always were when he disapproved of something.
“You can’t be here,” I say, and wonder why my voice is so quiet. There’s a steel missing from my timbre, a sudden hollowness. My voice right now is an empty thing.
“And yet I am,” he says blankly, and despite my knowing better, I’m searching his eyes for some hint of something that was him – the unrelenting moralism, the tinge of kindness. Everything’s haunted when you’re me, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is my grand-uncle’s ghost. But is it him? It’s not the same thing. Not really.
“Why are you here?” I ask, repressing a stutter, and I find that, on reflex, symbols long burned onto the cortex of my brain are alighting with energy, ready to fire.
“You should have turned around and walked out the door the moment you laid eyes on the Johanson girl,” he says, still stern as a statue. “You’ve involved yourself in a mess you should have steered clear from.
“Yeah, well, my town, my problem,” I say, faking courage.
“Baby girl,” he says, and my heart beats too fast, “you don’t know what problems are.”
There’s a cracking sound, and then I realize I’m writhing in agony on the ground, my leg bent backward at an impossible angle. I don’t actually remember falling. Papa steps forward, a menacing leer plastered on his face.
“I shouldn’t have suffered you to live,” he says, and I can’t feel my breath anymore. “I was weak. Forgive me.”
I scream as my shoulder wrenches on its own accord. My brain is filled with white noise now. My teeth are chattering like mad, and my eyes are wet.
“That won’t happen again,” he says, staring down at me. “Mercy. I’m beyond all that, now.”
And something is welling in the distance, some force readying itself to pulverize my skull, and in desperation I lurch forward, swiping at my great uncle as though I were a cat with claws, instead of a woman with ruby red-painted fingernails. The swipe passes ineffectually through his leg.
Papa laughs, and stoops down to look me in the eye.
“You’re out of tricks, Whitney,” he says. “You are far, far outclassed here, and continuing down this path will only bring ruin to yourself and everyone you ever loved. Your parents … that girl whose friendship you abuse … You’ll be the death of them all.”
“I’m not …” I start to say, and then lose the words. My leg and shoulder are bleeding heavily, now, and I’m starting to feel lightheaded. He watches me catlike, content to watch me suffer, and clarity comes like a thunderclap.
A rib cracks as I roll away from him. My bones have become brittle saltine crackers. If I try to stand, I’ll pass out. I can feel it. So instead, I grab for my purse and pull out my cell phone, swinging my arm around to take a picture of the ghoul wearing my great uncle’s face. He looks down, uncomprehending, but says nothing.
I smile, and I think I feel a few teeth shatter in the process.
“Beat you … you bastard …” I say, struggling to remain conscious. Papa says nothing, his face awash in puzzlement.
“You’re … basically a hologram … right now,” I say. “every piece of information in you … is stored in every reproduction of the image. I may die here, but with one button I can send that information … to everyone on my friends list. Every occultist I correspond with, every Wiccan I buy supplies from. How many is that? A few hundred? A few thousand? Do you even know how many friends I have on Facebook?”
Papa turns pale as the words sink in. He lurches for me, and I pull my hand away.
“Uh-uh,” I say, gaining some strength as pure adrenaline pumps through my system. “No touching the merchandise. You see, I’ve figured out who you are. And you can beat me right now, but I’m not lying. Your secrets … your name … they can go viral as LOL cats, bitch.”
A sneer pulls across Papa’s face, and suddenly his image is replaced with that of a hideous crone. Bald, save for a few thin strands of gray hair, skin wrinkled leather. The woman looks at me, and blinks, and then she nods.
“You’re a fitting heir to Abigail Sparks,” says the woman, sounding almost impressed. “So … we’re at a stalemate. Again.”
“Yeah,” I say. “So I’ll tell you what. You undo the damage you’ve done to me, and I’ll erase the information from my phone. Then we call a truce for the rest of the night. Deal?”
The crone smirks.
“Deal,” she says.
“Swear it,” I say. “Swear it in blood.”
The crone bristles, and then presents her palm. A gash cuts itself open, and she visibly shudders at the pain, but doesn’t recoil.
“I swear in blood, and on pain of death and the loss of my immortal soul that our deal shall be as you spoke it.”
I note her diction, and nod. I’m already covered in blood, so I take her hand. And as I do, I can feel my bones hardening, feel my wounds knit closed. It’s as though my whole body is on fire, but I can handle it.
I’m wobbly as I stand, though, and my head still feels like I’ve been sucking nitrous for hours.
“But you should have stayed out of this, Whitney Bierce,” she says. “For all your cleverness, you can’t defeat me. Remove your guardianship of Esme Kelley’s granddaughter, and I’ll leave satisfied.
“No,” I say, upright now, letting the fire burn through my veins. “No, that’s not how it works. Not for Abigail, not for me.”
“You don’t know the first thing about Abigail Sparks,” says the crone, stepping backward into the shadows. “And you don’t know the first thing about this power we share. Trust me, child. Before this is all over, you will know a million upon a million agonies.”
And she’s gone, and I hear Paul McCartney crooning in my mother’s kitchen again, smell the waft of roast beast in the distance. It’s as though nothing happened. Except that I can’t stop shivering.
I slink down in my father’s chair and let it all out in one giant, heaping sob.